October 11, 2007 / 3:04 AM / 12 years ago

CORRECTED: Companies shifting virtual world strategies

(Corrects name of Second Life operator in paragraph 6 to Linden Lab instead of Linden Labs)

By Scott Hillis

SAN JOSE (Reuters) - When Cisco Systems decided to enter the Second Life virtual world, things didn’t turn out exactly as the network equipment supplier expected.

“We were quick. We got into Second Life and put up a big building with repurposed Web content. It was a ghost town. Digital tumbleweeds,” said Christian Renaud, head of Cisco’s networked virtual environments.

It turned out people wanted to log on to Second Life to hang out with friends and play casual games, not visit a 3-D version of a corporate Web site.

It’s an experience many companies that rushed to set up in Second Life have had in recent months, but rather than abandon its virtual homestead, Cisco changed tack.

“Two or three months in we bulldozed everything we’d done. It’s now a place for meetings (with customers and employees) rather than repurposed Web content,” Renaud said. “If I can have an intimate talk with 50 people a week, man, I’ve won the lottery.”

Privately-owned Linden Lab is the operator of Second Life.

The buzz around virtual worlds now is shifting from simply building a virtual headquarters to how companies can help employees work together or with customers more effectively.

Instead of declaring virtual worlds a failed experiment and pulling out, companies are rethinking their approach, much as they did on the Web a decade ago, when sites began evolving from little more than a few pages with brochure-style photos and information.

Some $200 million in investment has flowed to virtual world companies over the past year, and many of the three dozen or so efforts are focusing on corporate uses.

“We know enterprise (corporations) folks are looking at this primarily as a communication medium,” said Chris Sherman, director of the Virtual World Conference that kicked off on Wednesday.

“The first iteration of virtual worlds saw Second Life as a platform of choice, for experimental purposes. Now in the second iteration we’re seeing new platforms as well,” Sherman said referring to other virtual worlds.

“These are very closed platforms so they can create a virtual world that is not shared,” Sherman said.

The conference schedule reflects the shift, with sessions focusing on what went wrong with initial corporate forays into virtual worlds, what uses make sense for large businesses, and how to manage employee behavior in a digital world.

Examples of companies focused on the corporate aspect of virtual worlds include Forterra Systems, Millions of Us, The Electric Sheep Co, and Unisfair.

“If you create an island in a virtual world, you have to allocate a representative amount of money to drive people there. If not, there will be cobwebs in your space,” said Brent Arslaner, head of marketing for Unisfair, which sets up virtual rooms for corporate meetings, conferences and training events.

“Cool designers are not going to get you very far.”

The entertainment industry is also adapting, drawing up complex storylines that flit across television, computer and mobile phone screens.

The hit CBS show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigations” plans an episode later this month where a killer is pursued into Second Life. Viewers can continue the chase from within the world, or try a few other games related to the show.

“There’s been a lot of negative press about Second Life lately,” said “CSI” creator Anthony Zuiker. “I think that’s because a lot of companies are cutting big checks into Second Life and there’s no real application in mind.”

To read Reuters dispatches from its news bureau in Second Life, please visit secondlife.reuters.com/

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