Last week I moderated a panel on Transforming Healthcare, Education and Business through Virtual Worlds at the Westport (CT) Public Library. There is a lot of interest in virtual worlds - and Second Life in particular, as evidenced by the number of recent newspaper and magazine articles by top technology reporters like Kevin Maney of USA Today and David Kirkpatrick of Fortune.
Many are trying to figure out whether these are serious subjects that go beyond games and entertainment. Some of us believe that this is the natural evolution of the Internet and World Wide Web, and therefore worthy of the considerable attention being increasingly devoted to it by the technical and business communities, as well as by the media. Others, however, feel that this is all the marketing hype of a hungry IT industry looking for its Next Big Thing. Perhaps the biggest skeptic about the future of virtual worlds and Second Life is Clay Shirky, a consultant, writer and teacher who is Adjunct Professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.
He, Beth Coleman and Henry Jenkins have started a very interesting dialogue on virtual worlds and Second Life through their respective blogs. Henry Jenkins is Professor of Literature at MIT, where Beth Coleman is Assistant Professor of Writing and New Media. They are both also on the faculty of MIT's Comparative Media Studies program. Here are Henry's, Beth's and Clay's blog entries to kick off their discussion. I would like to contribute to this civilized exchange by explaining my own point of view on the subject, which I come to from a somewhat different angle than Clay, Beth and Henry.
For more than twenty years I have seen how valuable visualization has been to help us better understand and interact with the vast amounts of information generated in supercomputing simulations. Supercomputing visualization has been successfully applied in discipline after discipline, from research in physics, chemistry and biology, to the design of buildings, cars and microprocessors, to the healthcare, pharmaceutical and life sciences industries. Visualization has also been used in learning and training of various sorts, such as in flight simulators for pilots and war game simulations for members of the armed forces. In the last ten years we have seen a huge growth in the use of visualization, with the advent of powerful game consoles and online gaming environments.
I think of virtual worlds as a major next step in computer visualization. This capability, widely used in the supercomputing community for years, can now be brought to many more people and many more applications, due to far more powerful technologies and rapidly falling prices.
But perhaps even more important is our ability now to include people in our virtual worlds. A number of efforts have aimed to immerse people into the applications being visualized, so they can better interact with them. CAVEs were one such attempt to immerse users in a virtual reality world. Another approach has been to immerse the people through the use of avatars, an approach widely used in massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) and role playing virtual environments like Second Life. The avatar-based approaches have the advantage of being much less expensive and cumbersome than CAVEs, as well as being able to immerse large numbers of people in the virtual worlds through their avatars.
Why are virtual worlds appealing to so many people now? In recent years, the Web has become a more collaborative platform through the increased use of social networking and Web 2.0 capabilities. In that light, it should not surprise us that people have gravitated to virtual worlds not only to play games, but also to visually communicate and interact with each other, conduct meetings, teach classes or just hang out.
About three years ago, the IBM Academy of Technology, where I serve as chairman of the board of governors, conducted a study on the potential impact to the IT industry of technologies and applications coming from the world of games. We have long known that one way to figure out where the IT industry will be heading in the future is to watch what is going in the supercomputing and research communities. The IBM Academy study essentially said that similar attention should now be paid to the world of games. The study strongly recommended that IBM should mount serious efforts to understand the implications of games and related online virtual environments on future IT applications products and services.
Since then, we have significantly increased our activities in IBM in virtual worlds, digital convergence and similar areas. Our technical community across the company has mobilized to explore a variety of opportunities. We have reached out to universities and research labs as well as clients in a number of industries to look for opportunities to do joint pilots and experiment in the marketplace. Their feedback has been invaluable and generally positive. Consequently, at the beginning of this year we launched a new 3D Internet business unit to coordinate our various efforts in these areas across the company.
This is all in the very early stages, and there are a lot more questions than answers. When will virtual world capabilities become widely used in business? Which new companies will emerge as leaders? What kinds of applications will prove to be most useful? At this time, we don't know the answers to these questions. As always seems to happen in our industry, the marketing hype index is going up as more people, - and the media, discover exciting new capabilities. But I am convinced that something very important is going on out there with the potential to have a profound impact on the IT industry.