Over the past year, Intel employees from Singapore, Israel, and the U.S. have convened via high-level computerized conferences, collaborating on such projects as product strategy and information-technology planning.
But these are no ordinary online meetings. They've happened in virtual worlds, with three-dimensional graphic characters, or avatars, standing in for actual Intel employees, making notes, holding conversations, and solving problems.
Call it do-it-yourself virtual life. Companies across the globe have been rushing to establish a marketing beachhead in virtual worlds such as Second Life, largely to get their brands and products in front of the hard-core faithful who spend hours immersed in online role playing and other pursuits.
But lately, executives from a range companies, including defense giant Raytheon, oil heavyweight BP, and computer maker Hewlett-Packard, are making a deeper push into virtual worlds, using them for a host of other tasks, such as training, private collaboration, and outreach to analysts and customers.
Stanford University's Media X project, which hires out scholars to conduct corporate research for companies including Cisco and Motorola, is debuting its own virtual world on Apr. 16. The space affords each client its own private conference room for meetings with Stanford scientists.
"It's just an exciting way of thinking of how you can have these conversations," says Charles House, the executive director of Media X who formerly led Intel's virtual world efforts.
Using virtual technology for more than marketing is a "no brainer," says Craig Samuel, a vice-president at IT consultancy Unisys. At the typical global corporation, 20% of employees have never met their boss in person, House says.
And 3D spaces offer a level of interaction that's not possible over the phone or via videoconferencing, says Sebastien Jeanjean, head of sales and marketing at France's Tixeo, a maker of corporate virtual-world software used by customers including Raytheon.
"In 2D, even if you hear and see a person, you still have a feeling of being alone," Jeanjean says. "After half an hour, it's very difficult to keep people's attention."
But let users interact through avatars, and they will stay plenty engaged, the thinking goes. The software used by Intel, from Palo Alto (Calif.) startup Qwaq, uses light, music, and color cues to highlight documents under discussion. To find a file, users simply utter its name -- say, "press release on global warming" -- and avatars are whisked to the corresponding room. Missed a meeting? No problem. Attendees can save work, including notes and a chat transcript, for later use.
Meetings and conferences are just the beginning, say proponents. The software could help medical students collaborate on surgical procedures, for example. "Unlike technology hype of the past, adoption of this will be quite fast," says Samuel. "This is viewed as transformational. This will be the way we interact with information in the future."
It's too early to judge the effectiveness of virtual technology for businesses, and few companies are willing to share their own stories. But software vendors boast what they consider impressive gains: Tixeo says its sales have risen more than 100% every year since 2004. Multiverse, a Mountain View (Calif.) software maker, says developers are using its tools to build some 130 virtual worlds for consumers and businesses. And Qwaq is "seeing a lot of interest," says Chief Executive Greg Nuyens.
How much the technology will transform users' business is an open question, and in some cases security remains an issue. Linden Labs, owner of Second Life, is considering steps that will give corporate users more control of their own virtual worlds. Company property in Second Life is now largely open to the public. Ad agency Leo Burnett, for instance, wouldn't dream of discussing confidential matters on its Second Life island. "There are no secrets being told," says Tor Myhren, Leo Burnett's executive creative director.
But down the road, Linden plans to let companies run its software on their own servers, effectively creating their own Second Life-like worlds, says Glenn Fisher, director of marketing programs at Second Life. Users would have the option of providing a gateway to the Second Life community or keeping their worlds closed.
Virtual conferencing could cause some disruption in the market for Web conferencing, particularly among vendors such as WebEx, acquired by Cisco in March; Microsoft, which provides conferencing through its Live Meeting tool; and Adobe.
Corporate virtual worlds aren't much more expensive than tools like WebEx. For its hosted application, Tixeo charges $47 a month for a group of up to five people to meet up any time, for unlimited time.
WebEx charges $49 a month for unlimited meetings of up to 10 people. Building a virtual world from scratch can be done cheap and fast as well. Multiverse lets developers use its tools free but then shares in any revenue that's generated from a virtual world. "For business collaboration, you don't need incredibly high-level graphics," says Multiverse co-founder Corey Bridges.
For now, WebEx doesn't appear to be losing sleep over new conferencing possibilities. The company says its customers prefer real-time videoconferencing capabilities to 3D interactivity. "When you're doing business, you want to be able to look that person in the eye, and I would personally not want to look at an avatar," says Gary Griffiths, WebEx's president of products and operations. "Our focus is not on virtual, it's on the real," he adds. Indeed, companies like Intel have been using their virtual worlds to complement -- not replace -- existing video- and Web-conferencing software.
What's more, using virtual worlds requires a steep learning curve. For Mark Levitt, an analyst with consultancy IDC, the question boils down to this: "How many workers will prefer to vicariously watch their avatars access a customer relationship management or team-project timeline rather than accessing these tools directly?" The folks at Qwaq and Media X will soon find out.