8 August 2007

Second thoughts on Second Life

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Second Life
Lately a lot of people seem to have had second thoughts on Second Life.

A wave of articles was published recently on how marketers are not getting the returns they were expecting, how deserted it is, how it is all about sex and pranks, how it has become a virtual nanny state, and even how terrorists are using it to plan attacks.

Leaving aside for now the discussion to what extent this is just negative hype, it does make sense to see Second Life as an experimental environment where we can prototype new interaction and communication paradigms. Experimenting in these virtual worlds can also help us understand and imagine a future where a mix of real and virtual worlds will become increasingly prevalent.

I can see four good reasons for businesses, institutions and experience designers to be present in Second Life.

1. Prototyping of new participatory communication paradigms often involving very targeted and selected communities
A lot of lectures take place in Second Life. In fact, more than 300 universities, including Harvard and Duke, use Second Life as an educational tool. Some educators conduct entire distance-learning courses there; others supplement classes. Also big companies such as IBM and Intel use these graphics-rich sites to conduct meetings among far-flung employees and to show customers graphical representations of ideas and products. IBM went even as far to take the unusual step of establishing official guidelines for its more than 5,000 employees who inhabit “Second Life” and other online universes. Philips Design uses Second Life “to gain feedback on innovation concepts, engage residents in co-creation and obtain a deeper understanding of potential opportunities in this virtual environment”. And the Italian bank BNL and others are using virtual worlds to create communities to recruit some of their future employees, especially for more creative or technical job openings. Even something simple as chat is an entirely different experience on Second Life, with the other person’s presence is no longer communicated through an MSN-style presence icon with a small photograph or drawing but instead through a full three-dimensional moving avatar.

2. Prototyping of new interaction paradigms
Researchers at MIT are building realistic training simulators in Second Life, often controlled through a Wiimote. Some are even creating simulations for companies, such as a medical-devices firm, a global-energy company focused on power-plant training, and a pest-control firm — all looking to reduce training costs. In the words of one researcher, “the ability to easily integrate a wide range of psychomotor activities with simulations running on standard computer platforms will change the ways people interact with computers.”

3. Experimentation in an unconventional digital environment
These virtual worlds may be primitive still, but if we think of it, we are already living in an enriched world where our interactions with companies and banks, institutions and universities, cities and public services, are no longer just based on a physical communication paradigm. Instead they have become highly mediated by technologies. This will continue to grow. Our interactions will not only become more mobile but also more involving, more three-dimensional, and more experiential. Virtual worlds will be important, no matter what. There will be new types of interfaces – as already alluded to here and here and here – and new types of feedback, and it makes sense for forward looking companies to explore these new ways of reaching out to and involving their customers.

4. Virtual laboratories to understand human behaviour
Also researchers are exploring Second Life and other virtual worlds. A recent article in the journal Science addresses how researchers are getting insights into real life by studying what people do in virtual worlds, suggesting that virtual worlds could help scientists studying ideas of government and even concepts of self, while other researchers are looking at how behaviour peculiar to online worlds differs from that in real life. Also our colleagues from Adaptive Path are involved in this type of research.

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