Virtual world, real business

Updated: Dec 31 2007, 06:05am hrs
Three dimensional (3D) internet holds incredible potential to transform customer experiences, improve business processes, drive collaboration, enrich commerce, and enable 3-D modeling and simulations to better understand the markets. This isnt just about living in Second Life, or playing sophisticated games.

Noted science fiction writer Issac Asimov once said in describing new inventions, The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but Thats funny ... Asimovs ideas on the oftentimes juxtaposition of discovery might aptly describe the current feeling in corporate world concerning the hype surrounding the emergence of virtual worlds, which could be described as a bit puzzled and intrigued by technology typically relegated to the gaming industry.

About three years ago, the IBM Academy of Technology, 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 on in the supercomputing and research communities. The study essentially said that similar attention should now be paid to the world of games and strongly recommended that companies should mount serious efforts to understand the implications of games and related online virtual environments on future IT applications, products and services.

Now, while the technology today may still seem frivolous, and the environments may look a bit goofy, just remember the days of the early web. The technology will get better, access will improve and virtual worldsand the 3-D, immersive and social environments they enablewill become an increasingly pervasive part of the existing web. 3D internet holds incredible potential to transform customer experiences, improve business processes, drive collaboration, enrich commerce and transactions and enable 3-D modeling and simulations to better understand the markets. This isnt just about living in Second Life, or playing sophisticated games. Its about building platforms where serious business can be conducted, including 3-D intranets and private business worlds.

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. The bottom line is that we are struggling to cope with the massive amounts of information coming at us in both our personal and professional lives. From e-mail, to websites, to phone calls, market reports, newspapers and magazines, TVs, podcasts, and dozens of others. We need a way to cope with this amazing information explosion. Advanced visualisation technology which was borne out of the scientific and supercomputing communities to make sense of massive amounts of information may be one such way to deal with this problem. Those communities have used visualisation to move from the tedious process of reading through reams of data to actually seeing such data-intensive processes as weather patterns, the complexities of the human heart and the design of the slickest new BMW. The ability for us to visualise complex data in a way the human brain can comprehend is now emerging in the form of virtual worlds. It may just hold promise for helping us all deal with information overload and complex processes in business.

But, virtual worlds arent just about visualisations; they also provide highly social, interactive environments that are more like real life and can connect people who cannot be togetherall over the world, and from different cultures and environments. The combination of these two paradigmsrich visualisation and immersive social interactions is proving to be a powerful tool for business, in a number of areas.

For instance, IBM is already working on applications of virtual worlds for business, including: CommerceWorking with clients, such as Sears and Circuit City, to explore and experiment with the application of virtual worlds to online stores; Collaboration and EventsLinking with existing social computing models and networks, immersive environments for meetings that are more like real life, recreating real world events and destinations, providing cultural and interactive experiences for people who cant make it to the real places; Education and TrainingUsing 3-D models to simplify complex topics, interactive training modules, rehearsals, role playing.; and The exploration of other, emerging Business ApplicationsAddressing business and societal issues using immersive, 3-D models, simulations of supply chains, business processes, what if scenarios and applications nobody has even thought of yet.

Some of the interesting applications include a professor of psychiatry at the University of California using Second Life to simulate and experience Schizophrenia, in an effort to more deeply study and understand what people who are Schizophrenic are going through and how to best treat them. Or for instance, The Centres for Disease Control has created virtual clinics to train emergency workers who might be called to rapidly set up medical facilities in a national crisis.

Early virtual worlds like Second Life have demonstrated that these highly visual, immersive environments satisfy two key aspects of being human: our innately social and visual natures. As these worlds become more integrated with the current Web we will see a transformation in businessboth how consumers interact with business and how employees inside of businesses interact with each other and broad communities.

To reach this future, we need to take some immediate and bold step to ensure these platforms are viable for future use and development. Open standards must emerge so these virtual worlds connect together, users will be able to cross from one world to another, just like they can go from one web page to another on the Internet today. Finally, we need to aggressively drive the creation of moreand newbusiness applications to release the business values that can be accelerated by the use of these virtual worlds. The technology may not be perfect, but it will continue to improve. And the application to business and society will be limited only by what the best and brightest can imagine. It may not be an overnight Eureka moment, but it will certainly be fun!!!

The writer is MD, IBM India & South Asia