Five years ago everyone was talking about virtual worlds, such as Second Life, and how they could be used in business. Henry Tucker MBCS asks if they are still there.

Back in 2006 the media was awash with articles about virtual online worlds such as Second Life. Companies were opening up offices there and people started, it seemed, to make real money online. Platforms such as these looked as though they would be the model for future business, then the hype died down and people started to pull out.

So is the Second Life model dead, does anyone use it anymore or is it still going?

Ian Hughes, better known by his online moniker ePredator, is the Chair of the BCS Animation and Games Development Specialist Group and a self-proclaimed metaverse evangelist.

He started out coding in his bedroom and then went to work for IBM dealing, mostly, with emerging technology. It was during this time that he says he wanted to see how he could introduce game technology into corporate life.

‘I became very aware that the way that we communicate in games, and what you get to know about someone in games, was a lot richer than our standard emails and telephone calls. And as we were increasingly doing instant messaging in corporate worlds it didn’t seem that big a leap to be using virtual environments, although not necessarily games,’ he said.

In about 2000, Ian tried to persuade people in his team to do things with virtual worlds and game technology. He and his team started to see how to work with one another and communicate across their offices using these environments.

He said that sometimes it was as simple as having a game of Quake to get to know people. Then, in about 2006, he turned himself into a metaverse evangelist at IBM, which was the start of the next phase of virtual worlds when Second Life was popular.

‘When we started to look at Second Life we said “this isn’t a game. It is game technology, it lets you design, share and immerse in things as well as talk and do more than just PowerPoint in a space with other people at distance.” I spent several years in IBM helping people with worlds such as these, sometimes with Second Life, often it wasn’t.

Games industry

‘These virtual worlds hadn’t spawned out of the game industry but they were based on game technology. Despite this the game industry was ignoring everything that happened with virtual worlds and corporates because that’s not their normal business. Yet I was thinking this is all the same stuff.

If you take what the games industry does and what traditional IT does, they are not that different. In fact they are identical, yet they don’t talk to one another. This technology, as well as being useful, is good for bringing the technologies together.’

Part of the reason for the perceived decline in virtual worlds is down to the usual adoption curve for a new technology. When it was new a lot of people were talking about it, so the media paid attention. Second Life still has a passionate set of users, it doesn’t have as many users as Facebook, which is always the comparison, but it is nine years old.

‘It seems to be getting more attention again,’ says Ian. ‘A new generation of people are discovering that just doing things on Facebook isn’t that interesting and can be irritating. They want more engagement and they want to try some other stuff.

‘At the same time Facebook has created CloudParty, which is a 3D virtual world. Alongside this is Open Sim, which is an open source virtual environment. This started off as a sort of clone of Second Life except you run your own servers or you can pay someone to run one for you. That is getting used by some universities that need private virtual environments to rehearse certain medical scenarios.

‘There are lot of things happening and a lot of people doing stuff, but because it’s not high-end marketing stuff and because companies are nervous about saying that they are anything to do with it, working in virtual worlds is an uphill struggle because even gamers don’t like virtual worlds. So there’s a large virtual community and we’re still here.’