Last week I was in London. One of the main reasons for the trip was to meet with members of the press to discuss our new initiatives focused on the impact of massively multiplayer online games (MMOG) on business, in particular those games that are truly best thought of as virtual worlds or virtual environments, like Second Life. Joining me for the press briefings were some of my colleagues in IBM who are experimenting with these new capabilities. Some were physically with me in London, but most were distributed around the world - in the US, India, Canada, Australia and the UK - and joined as part of a virtual meeting conducted in Second Life.
For awhile now, I have felt that one of the most exciting areas of innovation is to recast our interactions with computer applications in terms of the humans that use them rather than the machines and software that run them. In particular, since our brains are basically wired for sight and sound, it is not surprising that the more visual an application, the more intuitive and human oriented it is likely to feel.
I first became sensitive to the importance of highly realistic visualizations some fifteen years ago through my involvement with scientific and engineering applications. In these fields, visualization is used extensively to represent the natural or engineered objects being modeled, simulated and analyzed. As the costs of visualization technologies have dropped precipitously, the cutting edge of visualization is now taking place in the video game world, especially around the new generation of gaming technologies like Microsoft's XBOX 360, Nintendo's Wii and Sony's PS3.
About two years ago, a study conducted by the IBM Academy of Technology concluded that technologies and capabilities from the gaming world would have a very strong impact on all aspects of IT, and made a number of recommendations for follow-on activities, which we have proceeded to implement.
To learn what is required in a practical way, we have been using the Second Life platform to conduct a series of experiments, such as holding virtual meetings on a variety of subjects with groups of various sizes. The meeting participants are represented visually by their individual avatars or personalized icons in the virtual world. We are very interested in understanding how best to conduct such virtual meetings. We have learned that many of the visual clues from the physical world should be embraced in the virtual world. For example, meeting participants should be seated facing each other, as they would normally do in a meeting, and whoever is currently speaking should gesture with his or her arms.
Many, many aspects of conducting effective meetings in the virtual world remain to be investigated. Will we have different avatars for different kinds of meetings - perhaps using fairly realistic, more formal representations of ourselves for first time business meetings, and more casual, fanciful representations for meetings with colleagues and friends we know well? How should one best represent the resources used in the meeting, be they presentations, live video feeds, demos, and so on?
Another exciting area of study is e-commerce in the virtual world. The original, and now very successful concept of e-commerce, is built around the metaphor of a catalogue, which fits the page content notion of the Web and of browsers very nicely. But in the emerging, highly visual virtual worlds, commerce could be conducted in virtual stores, the allure of which would be limited only by the imagination of the virtual store designers.
We started to experiment with commerce in the virtual world during the Wimbledon tournament. We built a site on Second Life that looked like a tennis court. Visitors could follow the path of the ball in the virtual tennis court, and merchandise like Wimbledon towels were available for sale. We have also built links to other commerce sites like amazon.com to show how easy it is to link virtual worlds with the more conventional Web world.
An important area we need to understand is how processes of all sorts from the “real” business world can best be depicted in the virtual world. For example, in India we are experimenting with how best to inboard new employees using resources from the virtual world to complement the existing physical processes.
I believe that using such virtual, highly visual capabilities to help us design, simulate, optimize, operate and manage business activities of all sorts is going to be one of the most important breakthroughs in the IT industry over the next decade. Today's commercial applications, especially those involved in enterprise resource planning (ERP), are very complicated, monolithic and static, and often end up frustrating their users. I am convinced that dealing with such business applications in a kind of SimBusiness fashion, - that is, the application feels like a realistic simulation of the business and its operations, - will not only transform IT but business itself. Perhaps for the first time, we will be able to understand what is really going on in a business and its various processes, and then systematically improve and optimize them in multiple dimensions.
As Yogi Berra might have said, this feels like deja vu all over again. When we started our Internet efforts in IBM about ten years ago, the Internet was already being used by millions around the world, and we had a very strong sense that it was going to have a huge impact on businesses and institutions of all sorts, but we honestly were not quite sure what that impact would be.
We started to use the Internet and the Web for various projects within IBM and to study what others were doing out there. We learned by conducting a series of experiments. For example, we built a web site that would for the first time enable people from around the world to follow the chess match between Deep Blue and the then reigning chess champion Garry Kasparov in February of 1996. Later the same year, we undertook the then really ambitious project of putting the whole 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics online. We learned a lot from these market experiments, and they helped us considerably in organizing our very successful e-business strategy.
So, here we are in 2006, once more facing a set of fledgling technologies and capabilities -- massively multiplayer online games and virtual worlds – that are already being used by many millions out there. Once more we have the very strong feeling that this will have a huge impact on business, society and our personal lives, although none of us can quite predict what that impact will be. It will be fascinating to see where this ride takes us in the future.