Like so many things in cyberspace, Second Life, a 3-D virtual world, began with a lot of hope--and hype. Who could resist what was promised? Islands full of new friends! A new era of human interaction! Hundreds of retailers opened virtual stores, and Reuters even launched a Second Life news bureau.
Well, the bureau closed early last year, and Linden Lab's virtual utopia is full of malls selling nothing but pixilated genitalia. But Second Life is hoping to polish up its reputation in the business world by solving virtual reality's very real problem: the absence of security layers and administrative control functions that would make such an environment a safer place to do business.
Second Life Enterprise, which will launch midyear, is designed to be a virtual meeting space and prototyping tool--except that instead of being out in open cyberspace, where hackers can attack servers and virtual streakers can ruin a presentation, Enterprise is a piece of hardware that allows companies to create a private world behind their own firewall.
The package, which will retail for $55,000, includes 10 customizable business casual-clad virtual workers and support for 700 more, comes installed with an auditorium, two conference rooms and prototyping areas. Businesses can also build their own virtual spaces (hot tub in the break room, anyone?) or import the buildings and spaces they've already designed on the public Second Life site. Using VoIP, text chat and document and CAD integration, companies can offer training, lectures, meetings and collaborations without rounding up the troops IRL (in real life).
Though it might seem like an expensive employee play land for anyone who hasn't utilized a virtual workspace, the technology is becoming a necessity for companies with multiple offices, large numbers of telecommuters or scattered vendors. So far the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I., has used the beta version of Second Life Enterprise on its secure network for training and to let engineers collaborate remotely. IBM and Northrup Grumman are also experimenting with the technology. A Second Life Work Marketplace lets third-party developers sell business-oriented apps, hairstyles and pantsuits to let companies tweak their virtual worlds.
Whether this will give Second Life a second wind remains to be seen. Twenty similar products are already on the market or in development, and none of them has been an over-the-top success.
"The enterprise market for immersive technologies is by no means mature; it is in the early adopter phase," says Erica Driver, co-founder of ThinkBalm, a firm in Little Compton, R.I., that analyzes immersive workplace technologies. She points out that Second Life's high profile is a plus, though its seedy reputation might keep the business world at bay. "This is an early-stage market, with lots of opportunity and room for growth for the players in it," Driver says.
In other words, the immersive technology field is still wide open.