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What's all this virtual world stuff anyway?

So this whole thing about virtual worlds. I have acknowledged that I don't fully get it. I tried to spend some time in Second Life, and... well, it just doesn't work for me. But I'm not a big gamer anyway, so... I may not be a good example.

This past week, on FCW's radio show, which airs on Federal News Radio here in Washington, D.C., we spoke to the folks at the Centers for Disease Control who are creating a CDC island in Second Life. [Hear it here, .mp3 format]

The virtual world Second Life has been getting some really terrible press lately. I mean really horrible. (PR folks tell me that there is no bad press -- as long as they spell your name correctly.)

There is a Second Life users group meeting in Chicago this week and CNet's story previewing the event all-but acknowledged the terrible press they have the Second Life virtual world has been getting.

When nearly 800 Second Life users hit Chicago this weekend for the third annual Second Life Community Convention, most will acknowledge it hasn't been a smooth ride lately for the virtual world.

BusinessWeek magazine is credited with writing the first story more than a year ago about the business applications for Second Life, in a story headlined, "My Virtual Life."

Some examples:

* The August issue of Wired magazine had a story headlined, "How Madison Avenue Is Wasting Millions on a Deserted Second Life."

Adrift in the uncharted sea that is Web 2.0 — YouTube, MySpace, social networking, user-generated content, virtual worlds — corporate marketers look at Second Life and see something to grab onto. At least 50 major companies have ventured into the virtual world to date, spending millions in the process. IBM has created a massive complex of adjoining islands dedicated to recruitment, employee training, and in-world business meetings. Coldwell Banker has opened a virtual real estate office. Brands like Adidas, H&R Block, and Sears have set up shop. CNET and Reuters have opened virtual bureaus there. It's as if the moon suddenly had oxygen. Nobody wants to miss out.

Ever since BusinessWeek ran a breathless cover story titled "My Virtual Life" more than a year ago, reporters have been heralding Second Life as the here-and-now incarnation of the fictional Metaverse that Neal Stephenson conjured up 15 years ago in Snow Crash. (Wired created a 12-page "Travel Guide" last fall.) Unfortunately, the reality doesn't justify the excitement.

* Time magazine's Aug. 9 issue had a story headlined, Second Life's Real-World Problems.

The overall traffic has been disappointing: the site has nearly 8.7 million registered members, but the number of active users is closer to 600,000. One reason for this gap may be that the technology isn't intuitive. (I spent my first hour on Second Life wearing both sneakers and high heels because I couldn't figure out how to discard one pair. And yes, I passed Computer Science 101.)... the site's failure to live up to expectations is serious business.

* Just as a little cherry on the Second Life cake, earlier in the year, Time called out Second Life as one of 2007's five worst Web sites.

We're sure that somebody out there is enjoying Second Life, but why? Visually, this vast virtual world can be quite impressive, but it's notoriously slow to load (it runs on free software you have to download) and difficult to navigate, even with a broadband connection.

FCW has covered the government's forays into the virtual world of Second Life. In fact, in FCW's editorial this week, we praised the handful of agencies that have been staking their claim to land in the virtual world for being pioneers.

I have acknowledged up front that I don't fully get Second Life. I've tried to spend time there, and... well, it just doesn't work for me. Now I may be too old. FCW reporter Ben Bain , who covers this Web 2.0 stuff for us, and who, I might add, is much younger and hipper then I am, has gotten into it a bit. (Not a bad job -- he gets to go on to Second Life at work.) He did the interview with NASA's Second Life intern actually in Second Life.

I have friends who routinely make fun of Second Life -- in fact, I think they just think it is sad that people are spending their time on virtual interactions rather then so-called real interactions. I'm not as ready to issue a summary judgment. And I'm not as opposed to new ways of communicating. We all remember the days when people bemoaned e-mail as the death of real conversation. I'm not sure that has proven to be true. I think it is a different kind of communication -- and it will work in some situations and not in the others. For NASA's Ames Research Center's CoLab, they have software experts creating open-source software called CosmosCode that NASA can use in its projects. Eventually, CoLab leaders plan to build a real-world facility in San Francisco where interested parties can collaborate with NASA. They are doing it in a collaborative environment that includes Second Life.

NOAA's Second Life island lets users actually 'fly' into a hurricane and see how hurricanes get formed. That also seems powerful.

IBM has actually hired consultants who can help organizations work on their virtual worlds -- and has created rules for working in a virtual world. They are apparently the first, Time reported.

IBM's rules — which apply to "Second Life," "Entropia Universe," "Forterra," There.com and other worlds — are logical extensions of the real world: Don't discuss intellectual property with unauthorized people. Don't discriminate or harass. Guidelines also include a 21st-century version of the Golden Rule: "Be a good 3D Netizen." Other rules are unique to the metaverse, which requires users to create animated avatars with distinct appearances, personalities and gestures. "Second Life," owned by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, has more than 8 million avatars; most look human, but many take the form of chipmunks, zombies or fantastic beasts.

IBM, whose 20th century employees were parodied as corporate cogs in matching navy suits, doesn't have an avatar dress code. But guidelines suggest being "especially sensitive to the appropriateness of your avatar or persona's appearance when you are meeting with IBM clients or conducting IBM business." Rules caution workers who have multiple avatars or frequently change their avatar's appearance. It's common to have numerous avatars — similar to having multiple e-mail addresses for work and personal use. "Building a reputation of trust within a virtual world represents a commitment to be truthful and accountable with fellow digital citizens," IBM states. "Dramatically altering, splitting or abandoning your digital persona may be a violation of that trust. ... In the case of a digital persona used for IBM business purposes, it may violate your obligations to IBM."

And then, there was a story in publication, The Lancet Infectious Diseases. (No, it's not on my regular reading list.) Lancet published this story:

Simulation models are of increasing importance within the field of applied epidemiology. However, very little can be done to validate such models or to tailor their use to incorporate important human behaviours. In a recent incident in the virtual world of online gaming, the accidental inclusion of a disease-like phenomenon provided an excellent example of the potential of such systems to alleviate these modelling constraints. We discuss this incident and how appropriate exploitation of these gaming systems could greatly advance the capabilities of applied simulation modelling in infectious disease research.

That publication spurred this story:

An accidental virtual plague that decimated the virtual population of an popular online game has piqued the interest of real-world disease trackers and public health planners.

The "corrupted blood" epidemic that triggered an unplanned and unwanted die-off of players of "World of Warcraft" may have been a simulation, but it offers valuable clues to how people might respond in the event of a real-life global outbreak of disease, they suggest.

Researchers are already eagerly exploring the possibility of using these popular simulation games to probe scientific questions for which actual experiments could not ethically be mounted.

"By using these games as an untapped experimental framework, we may be able to gain deeper insight into the incredible complexity of infectious disease epidemiology in social groups," American researchers Nina Fefferman and Eric Lofgren said in an article published Tuesday in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Ran Balicer sees great promise in the notion of harnessing the virtual laboratory of online games played by millions worldwide. (World of Warcraft alone has nine million registered players.)

I don't think that these Web tools are for everybody -- or everything or every organization. Few tools are. But in some situations, I think they may be powerful and useful. But we have a lot to learn so I credit those who are putting their toes in the virtual waters.

As I mentioned, FCW's radio show, we actually spoke about this to the people at CDC involved with their Second Life universe. Listen for yourself here. [.mp3]

Posted by Christopher Dorobek on Aug 24, 2007 at 12:16 PM


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