Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Virtual worlds: Businesses experiment with Second Life

Originally published on cbc.ca.

In the early 90s, the Web was difficult to reach. Few people spent time online. Businesses didn’t know how to leverage the Net.

Today, people say the same things about Second Life (SL), a Net-based metaverse created by California’s Linden Labs and developed by its users.

In spite of this, several Canadian business and educational organizations are taking a trial-and-error approach, certain that their efforts will eventually reward them.

During the summer of 2007, Université Laval students Boris Ung and Eric Laflamme built a virtual campus for the Québec-based school’s Communications faculty.

Both welcome visitors to Laval’s SL campus using a female avatar – a three-dimensional “digital person” that users control in SL. “The faculty director chose a female avatar,” said Ung, “since there are more women than men in the faculty.”

Long-term plans for the campus aren’t firm, but it has generated results. “This project stimulates discussion about the effects of emerging technology on publicity, journalism and public relations,” said Ung.

Dr. Sam Shaw, President and CEO of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), uses SL to mitigate costs. Since he teaches regularly and travels often, Shaw teleteaches to keep his classes up to speed. Exorbitant videoconference bills were the price NAIT paid.

Today, when Shaw is on the road, he and his students congregate in one of NAIT’s Second Life virtual auditoria. There, Shaw uploads assignments, delivers lectures and otherwise keeps classes on course.

NAIT communications specialist Diane Begin-Croft recruits students in a welcome area. “Potential students can take virtual tours of the campus,” she said.

Even having accomplished specific goals, Shaw said NAIT’s metaverse presence is still more about experimentation. “SL has given us tools and users are driving the evolution of this environment,” said Shaw. “It gives us the ability to push boundaries.”

Although SL boasts several entrepreneurial stars, purely SL-based success stories are still comparatively rare. More common are the efforts of firms like Vancouver law practice Davis LLP. The firm launched its online office earlier this year and intends to learn about SL in-world. They built a boardroom for meetings with faraway clients (think Shaw’s online lectures) and can use the office to recruit lawyers.

According to technology and video game lawyer Chris Bennett, Davis needs an SL presence to maintain credibility with its video-game business clientele.

Sarah Dale-Harris, an intellectual property lawyer in Davis’s Toronto office, uses “the office” to build relationships. “I’ve managed to have sit-down chats with a colleague in Montreal. We don’t regularly chat in real life,” she said.

To develop the office, Davis contracted SL enthusiast Stacey Mitchell of Victoria who spent about 12 hours building it from photographs Davis gave her.

When not building and selling properties online, Mitchell uses her avatar Halley Dean to sell her own real-life photos and other creations in HL Designs, her Second Life store. As an SL business owner, she has seen what works and what doesn’t.

“The biggest error people make is approaching SL without good planning,” she said. “It’s like embarking on any other type of project.”

“For most businesses, SL is a marketing and PR stream – a cost centre,” Mitchell continued. “That’s the way most businesses should approach it, at least until they have a really good business idea.”

SL experts help newcomers avoid certain pitfalls. “For example,” Mitchell said, “I made sure that the place I rented for Davis didn’t have a BDSM dungeon next door.”

But even the best experts can’t eliminate all the problems that plague SL. Dungeons, griefer attacks (virtual sabotage) and the seedier side of SL make headlines more often than its proponents would like. “Some people who don’t understand SL question the seriousness of it,” said Bennett.

In addition, the initial buzz of an SL venture won’t carry it for long. SL is constantly growing and evolving and the number of residents online at any time is miniscule, which makes many areas often seem deserted. “New users can find wandering in an empty virtual world quite boring,” said Ung.

Davis IT staff are performing a security audit to make sure SL is safe to install on associate’s computers. “Because it’s a new forum for us, we want to make sure our records and databases are safe,” said Bennett.

NAIT’s Shaw also noted that while the technology is adequate for NAIT’s purposes, they can’t assume everybody has adequate computing power or the broadband connection necessary to render the graphics-rich environment at home.

Throw in the program’s historical bugginess and the steep learning curve non-gamers face, and SL traffic can be difficult to come by. Ung opined that once SL becomes simple to use, perhaps via a web browser instead of a separate piece of software, it will take off.

Entry costs, at least, are not a barrier. Mitchell bought a quarter sim (a plot of SL property) for $250 and pays $85 per month to cover the server capacity on which her property exists. Laval’s campus costs $225 plus $25 per month. The Davis office wasn’t expensive either. “It’s more time than money,” said Dale-Harris.

“Many multinationals have invested lots of time and money and attracted few clients,” said Laval’s Ung. “We approached our project as an experiment that shouldn’t cost us a lot.”

“You can’t just look at costs and-benefits,” said Bennett. “You have to go into it with a broader view and ask ‘What can this do for us?'”

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