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Corporate Presence in Virtual Worlds

By Andrew Pollack on 01/26/2007 at 12:12 PM EST

If I were to arrive for a meeting at IBM’s Palisades headquarters, it seems unlikely that I’d be accosted and harassed by a pale skinned woman in a black leather bikini with wings and carrying a bull whip. IBM’s security presence would not tolerate behavior like that for long on their campus. Nonetheless, when I connected to Second Life to see IBM’s growing investment in that space I found exactly that going on at their “Theater B” – a gathering spot patterned after an amphitheater. The character in question – more likely a young man than an actual female demon – was annoying the two or three other people who’d found their way to that location. I figured out how to “mute” the person, and then explained the trick to the other people who were likely also new to the virtual world having been invited by IBM. Of course, this didn’t really please our not so entertaining acquaintance. Muting someone doesn’t actually make them go away; it just means the stupidity they type stops showing up on your screen. They can still annoy you, and even push you around a little bit.

Picture of Andrew's SL avatarIBM ‘owns’ this virtual space within Second Life and presumably their designated people have the power to ban a character who refuses to meet their standards. Where were they? IBM seems to have spent serious time and money building a very impressive site with many buildings, meeting rooms, open spaces, artwork, and information spots for their products. That’s the fun marketing and engineering work. What struck me was that I found no evidence that they’d hired a virtual security guard – or enough of them to make a difference. That isn’t sexy for the technology centric people putting the site together. It took me more than 20 minutes to locate anyone at all with an IBM moniker and of course it was an “architect” – one of the engineering types making buildings and working with the environment. He wasn’t able to locate the individual and I wasn’t able to share my transcript of the conversation – though that may be possible in a way I haven’t yet discovered.

As a customer and business partner, I expect that when entering an IBM space – virtual or otherwise – I’ll find a professional and secure environment conducive to business. That wasn’t my experience. First, once I logged in I was completely unable to find any kind of link to the place I was going. I was looking for the “Lotusphere” conference virtual presence but no such term exists within the Second Life search tool. I did run into someone who works for Oracle and we chatted a bit, but ultimately I had to go outside the virtual environment to find where to go. Once I’d found a link on Lotus’s web site, I found IBM’s site but didn’t find many people from IBM. I met one sort of greeter person who offered me a t-shirt (a virtual one for my character) and there were a couple of other neophytes wandering around but that’s it. I’ve been back a few times both during daytime hours and nighttime ones and had similar experiences each time.

IBM isn’t alone in misunderstanding the technology. I visited a virtual “Sears” store and found that in a world where you can fly around, where movement is clumsy and best done on a gross scale, they’d built a sort of store replica with interior spaces, doorways, elevators, and display stands. I spent most of the time bumping into walls or finding myself situated with the camera view that follows my character on the other side of a bush or wall from the character. To leave, I couldn’t just fly away. One thing I didn’t find at all was anyone from Sears. I did a search and found a Microsoft location but couldn’t go there. It was private and unavailable.

The technology does work. It took me about 20 minutes to figure out how to move around smoothly, and another half an hour to make an avatar that looks enough like me that people who know me will see the resemblance. I must say the options are more limited if you want to create a 40 year old with a bit of paunch and gray in his hair than if you want a heavily muscled and perfectly tanned movie star. With some extra work, I was even able to re-create a fire department t-shirt that I’m frequently seen wearing, though this had to be done outside the virtual environment and I have the advantage of a good bit of experience creating graphical things (including t-shirts) within those applications.

From what I can tell, Second Life is an interesting platform for trying out new meeting spaces. The paradigm is useful for large gatherings and may grow to be a good place for looking at things in a sort of 3D way. I can see concerts and political meetings working well there in a few years. For now, it’s an extremely high bandwidth version of a chat room which will appeal briefly to technology people and a bit longer for young men with a taste for bad graphical pornography or a need to cross dress.

It isn’t sexy to hire a roving security patrol staff yet that’s clearly needed. I expect that if I walk into a store there will be someone who works for that store there to talk to. Can you imaging walking into IBM’s Lotus offices at One Rogers street in Cambridge and finding nobody there from IBM? If IBM, Sears, and others plan to have a presence in places like this they need to start taking it more seriously from a customer standpoint rather than a marketing and pretty pictures one.

There are  - loading -  comments....

re: Corporate Presence in Virtual WorldsBy Steve Tsuida on 01/26/2007 at 03:55 PM EST
I feel your pain, and posted a similar rant on our corporate blog:
re: Corporate Presence in Virtual WorldsBy Christopher Byrne on 01/26/2007 at 04:24 PM EST
This has been EXACTLY my objection to the IBM participation in Second Life,
voiced to IBM execs like Mike Rhodin in the blogger Q&A. Thank you for your
post (and that of Steve).
re: Corporate Presence in Virtual WorldsBy Andrew Pollack on 01/26/2007 at 05:23 PM EST
What you did was throw a tantrum and rant about something to someone completely
uninvolved in a public way when he was unprepared to deal with it. It wasn't
effective or helpful.
re: Corporate Presence in Virtual WorldsBy Christopher Byrne on 01/26/2007 at 09:11 PM EST
Andrew, that is not what I am referring to, and I am taking steps to make
amends for that (having already personally talked to 2 of the 4 people
personally, and following through on the suggestion you gave me)). I am
referring to what I have been writing and what I have spoken to IBM people
about at other times. I know what transpired may not have been helpful (and
definitely uneffective), but to say that is was unfair because he was
unprepared, I don't buy it. But we can discuss that further off-line.
re: Corporate Presence in Virtual WorldsBy Mark on 01/26/2007 at 04:32 PM EST
I'll let someone from IBM chime in with the corporate rationale behind its
exploration of SecondLife. (but I'll bet, for right now, that's all it is:
I would agree with you that SecondLife is difficult and cumbersome with a
typical screen, keyboard and mouse. I didn't even get to the stage of
modifying or creating a new avatar. However, I found it intriguing to think,
in social and technological terms, beyond the restrictions of the physical
world. I think these virtual worlds like SecondLife , can help spawn new ideas
and new perspectives on old ideas.
It's no surprise that adult "areas" are there first. Consider the parallels to
be drawn from the "earliest profession" in the physical world we live in. Or
even in early cyberspace, remember *before* the internet when CompuServe
chatrooms were all that was available. What sort of chatrooms were then (and
still are now) most active? I'm not saying these kinds of activities are the
best and highest use of the virtual space but nonetheless they exist in all the
virtual and physical worlds that I'm aware of.
So now let's step up a notch to the "high commerce" use of virtual worlds. I
remember selling Notes add-on software via a bulletin board system. That ideas
seems so archaic now, but 14 years ago it was ALL THE RAGE. Now "simple" web
e-commerce is measured in billions of dollars. IBM has the resources to
explore these new virtual worlds. They should be there and they should be
creating things, just to see how it works, how it feels. Maybe they shouldn't
have publicised it at Lotusphere but I'm sure glad they did. I appreciate the
re: Corporate Presence in Virtual WorldsBy Bruce Perry on 01/27/2007 at 01:39 PM EST
It could have been worse. See this article about virtual surrealist protests
against a French political party, the FN.

The FN clearly made things worse for themselves by chosing a site where
firearms are operational.

Warning! article uses the phrase "pig grenade". Strong possibility of
uncontrollable giggling.
re: Corporate Presence in Virtual WorldsBy Kevin Aires on 01/30/2007 at 09:25 AM EST
I am part of the core team working on IBMs island complex. What you mention is
a serious point and one that we take seriously. This is early days in our use
of virtual worlds, and there are many issues we are trying to address. If we
view this as a next stage to the evolution of the internet in one sense, we
have a new problem here of expectations

When viewing a normal webpage, there is no expectation that the owner of that
page is sitting there waiting for your input or to interact with the user.
Users typically cannot sense how many others are also viewing that page and
have no expectation to interact with them in any case.

Translate that situation to Second Life - I built the Greater IBM Connection
building and am part of a small team at IBM who are building that function in
IBM. The Second Life element is a small part of what we are doing, and I am
the expert on SL in the team. I only work 8 hours a day and am in the UK and
am only in SL when it I need to be. So... if someone from the US visits the
building in the afternoon, they will likely find it empty or with one or two
other visitors, giving a sense that "nothing is happening". Indeed not much is
happening other than me sleeping(!), but on our webpage, no-one would mind.

One method of dealing with this is to put up signs saying when you will be
available, which is probably the best way of dealing with them. However, it is
also a big sign to say - grief me at the following times!

So, I think it is more an issue at the moment of people getting used to the
Second Life experience - Like getting used to unmanned gas stations.

You mention IBM buildings having security - if IBM buildings could not be
vandelised, broken into or have things stolen from them, then they would
probably not have security either. The point about having a welcoming face is
a bigger issue though. However, in my experience on some of the larger
buildings in the IBM islands, there is often someone around from IBM as it's a
work in progress by real IBMers. This is in contrast to some other corporate
islands which are more of a shop front designed by a 3rd party, without much
internal involvement.

I would be interested in other people's views on this.
re: Corporate Presence in Virtual WorldsBy Kevin Aires on 01/30/2007 at 09:31 AM EST
Another thought on your unpleasent experience... Our complex is quite a large
area to patrol. In real life one generally has an expectation that most people
will behave in a reasonable manner without heavy handed security. However in
Second Life, a higher proportion of people feel at ease with behaving badly,
probably due to the level of annonymity, or at least dress in a way that some
might find questionable. Whilst such people can be "banned" we can't stop them
coming back as alterative characters or from teleporting in quickly, making a
nusience of themselves and then exiting before we arrive.
There are many ways to deal with this, acutally.By Andrew Pollack on 01/30/2007 at 11:04 AM EST
By bringing up the "mini-map" it is trivial to see that more than one person is
in an area that is quite large, and know just where. I'd imagine one person
--maybe two would be enough to cover the whole of IBM island using that "radar"
as a way to see when there is a gathered group. Within a second or two a
person could drop in and see who was there.
No, it absolutely is NOT about users getting used to the mediaBy Andrew Pollack on 01/30/2007 at 09:48 AM EST
Second life differs from a web page in many ways beyond the obvious. Your
reasoning, to me, sounds like an engineering answer to a social issue.

Building on theories which apply in the web media doesn't do any good.

Some things to consider:

#1 - It is never, ever, up to users to get used to it. It is about developers
understanding how users will expect to interact with a new media. Failing in
that task means being ignored rather than adapted to. Someone else will
understand this and bypass you.

#2 - An IBM architect in-world quoted some site statistics to me in terms of
number of visitors per day in an area. This is again an almost meaningless
number. A few hundred visitors over 24 hours has less value than 10 visitors
in the same 5 minute span. SL is about the concurrency of users not the number.

#3 - Comparing SL to a web page is a huge error in metaphor. It is MUCH more
like a chat room than a web page. Like a chat room, no matter how good the
technology it is useless without someone on the other end.

The GOOD experiences I've had in Second Life have been the informative and
intelligent chats I've had with some IBM architects and other smart people I've
met elsewhere in the world in the limited amount I've explored. The rest is
pretty pictures and dress-up. I have three daughters, and know 'dress-up' when
I see it.

Think, for a minute, about real world architects. The best consider not just
the form of their buildings but also their function. A building without people
is wasted space.

What, in my opinion, is missing in the current designs?

1. Security - in the old sense of actual people moving around and monitoring
the space with the power to ask nicely then forcibly remove miscreants.

2. Representatives - a friendly person to talk with about a topic. This could
just as well (perhaps better) be staffed with users group and community leaders
as sales people. One solution, set aside not buildings, but outdoor districts
related to major product areas and provide 'resting space' for volunteer
contributors so that there's always someone interested in the topic around.

3. Echos & Messages. IBM's site won't even let me make a landmark so I can
find my way back. There should be designated areas where messages can be left
for other community members. The equivalent of a message board would go a long
way to reducing the need for live concurrent chat. Given the easy script
interaction with html based web servers, creating a tie between web based blog
or discussion forums and in world representations of the same conversation
would be a good value.

4. A sense of presence. The idea of a "doorbell" on an area. It would be
trivial to IM someone in the real world when an in world user presses a "call"
button. Not much more complex perhaps, would be to create a Sametime plug in
as well.

Nobody wants to go to a 3D world to read content or watch video. That can be
done on the web. Frankly, rather than playing the content in world, it makes
more sense to have a link in-world that launches a player out of world where
content is fed from IBM's own web site.

Anyway, that's my rant of the day on this subject.

Keep up the good design work, but now bring in some humans.
re: No, it absolutely is NOT about users getting used to the mediaBy Chris Yeoh on 02/05/2007 at 09:20 PM EST
> #3 - Comparing SL to a web page is a huge error in
> metaphor. It is MUCH more like a chat room than a web
> page. Like a chat room, no matter how good the
> technology it is useless without someone on the other
> end.

I think it can be a good combination of the two. Whilst, as you say, Second
Life is not a good medium to just read content or video, I believe information
can be presented in a more intuitively interactive format than is possible in a
web page.

Where the big difference comes in, is with a web page if you get stuck
understanding a section, its not easy to ask for help. In SL you can ask people
nearby (who may nor may not be owners of the site) and when you do work through
problems with them, they can see what you're seeing, which makes resolving
misunderstandings easier.
re: No, it absolutely is NOT about users getting used to the mediaBy Tanaz on 02/13/2007 at 09:27 PM EST
I agree with Chris - in my view users can certainly have a better experience in
a 3D enviornmnrt with voice and visuals while having a persona (avatar) -
compared to a text only web page. Also, when it comes to regulating a
corporate Island - we need to get more creative than "installing live security
guards in the island" -- rather think through how we could use tools to have a
more pleasant experience for visitors and users - example: install "call
embassy" kiosks, etc. - at the end of the day - the market economy rule will
hold: if the abuse becomes too frequent, islands and 2nd life in general will
lose visitors - so, I think that this problem will regulate itself over time
and there will be more and more creative thinking on all of our parts to
address this issue.

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