I recently joined Second Life (SL), which describes itself as "a 3D online digital world imagined, created and owned by its residents." Another way to think about Second Life is in terms of Virtual Worlds. Wikipedia defines a virtual world as "a computer-simulated environment intended for its users to inhabit and interact via avatars. This habitation usually is represented in the form of two- or three-dimensional graphical representations of humanoids (or other graphical or text-based avatars)."
In the last couple of years I have become increasingly interested in 3rd generation user interfaces (3GUI) inspired by advanced gaming technologies such as those found in Microsoft's XBOX 360 and Sony's PS3. Over time I have become convinced that such highly visual, interactive interfaces will revolutionize the way people interact with IT applications of all sorts. I have also become convinced that such virtual world capabilities will profoundly transform business and related institutions in society.
A number of IBM colleagues from around the world, now numbering in the hundreds, have been experimenting with virtual worlds in Second Life, and they helped me get "in-world." In SL, you pick whatever first name you want and then you can choose from a selection of last names. (You can also select a specific last name by paying a fee.) Unlike most people in SL, I stuck with my First Life (FL) name - Irving. Among the second names offered by SL at the time I joined, I picked Islander. I sort of liked the sound of Irving Islander, and since I was born and grew up on an island – Cuba - Irving Islander felt just right.
My SL avatar or icon is a fairly realistic representation of what I look like in First Life - again, unlike most inhabitants of Second Life. My IBM colleagues designed my avatar along with the clothes my avatar wears. I have a suit and tie to wear for business meetings. But most of the time I go around Second Life dressed informally in a Pedro Martinez New York Mets baseball shirt, slacks, tennis shoes and a Cuban baseball cap. Perhaps not very imaginative by SL standards, but appropriate for someone my age hanging out in a virtual world.
And what a world it is! I have only been there a short time, and I have primarily explored the IBM sites my colleagues have built, but it is impressive how rich and innovative these virtual worlds are. While generally virtual worlds are inspired by and sort of look like the real worlds they represent, their appearance and behavior can be just about anything you want, limited only by the imagination of the designers. I can now appreciate how Alice must have felt in Wonderland.
My colleagues have built virtual world sites that replicate the IBM Hursley Labs in England and the Almaden Research Center in California. They are building a virtual Beijing Forbidden City. They are designing a set of conference centers devoted to business with our customers, public policy issues and internal collaborations. And they are creating meeting spaces for ex-IBMers and current employees to meet, catch up and even collaborate – part of a new alumni program called The Greater IBM Connection.
Multiply that kind of activity 100-fold, just in Second Life, and then factor in the many other virtual world sites that are either already in existence or under construction, and you get a picture of the innovative energy being unleashed by large numbers of people around the world. I think that what we are seeing is the evolution of the Internet and World Wide Web in incredibly important new directions. Foremost among them is a much more people-centric Web.
We see this people-centric evolution of the Web in social networks and Web 2.0 - capabilities that enable people to find each other, form communities, share information, and collaborate on a variety of endeavors. Now we are bringing to this new people-centric spirit the highly visual, interactive applications in Virtual Worlds. This new breed of applications is being rethought around the people who design them, maintain them and use them, instead of asking those people to come down to the level of the computers.
All in all, this feels to me just like the rise of the Internet and the Web did in the mid-90s. As was the case then, the underlying technologies now being discovered had been in use for a while in the scientific and technical communities – especially among those doing research in supercomputing applications. I still remember seeing very impressive scientific visualization work at the Los Alamos National Lab about fifteen year ago. I remember as well a visit to the Argonne National Lab over ten years ago when I first saw the virtual reality immersive environments known as CAVEs.
As with the Internet, the Department of Defense and other US Federal government agencies have had a major role in the development of these technologies, such as war-game simulations to help in the training of soldiers. And once again, the huge advances in the power and price/performance of the underlying computer technologies - such as the supercomputers and graphics capabilities needed to simulate virtual worlds and create highly realistic visualizations - are now bringing these sophisticated capabilities to consumer markets - in particular, to applications being primarily (but not exclusively) embraced by younger people, such as video games and massively multiplayer online games, including role-playing virtual environments like Second Life.
We are poised for the next major step. We can now bring these exciting capabilities, already in wide use in science, engineering, defense and consumer applications, into the worlds of business, education, health care and government. This was the step that led to IBM’s e-business strategy ten years ago. Could we be at the onset of v-business? Based on my initial experiences in Second Life, we are all in for an incredible ride.