First the hype. Then the sneer. Then the re-hype. That's the fairly predictable reaction to new technology: and virtual reality - particularly Second Life - is no exception.
Once upon a time, Second Life was going to be the future for online marketing. Indeed, there are still plenty who believe it could be a model for the next version of the internet - web 4.0 - but not yet.
Nonetheless, Second Life still has a lot going for it, but at the HR end of business. One difference between Second Life and more static online forums is that it is very friendly.
Interaction on the web can take place in a number of ways: email, forums, chat (for example, mirc) and virtual chat. What has been observed is that there seems to be a gradient, whereby the most real/most interactive leads to the least 'flaming' - whilst the least interactive can on occasion create such hostility that organisations are driven to restricting it internally or, on occasion, banning it altogether.
A number of organisations now use Second Life to bring together people working in widely dispersed geographic locations. Home workers can come into a central meeting point to meet other home workers. Kelly Training looks to a model whereby workers in a virtual call centre can gather round a central meeting point and chat to one another or raise issues with team leaders.
Dell sees Second Life as a good way to present a set of common training material to a group of people in one place at one time.
It is also very involving. There are things to do. 'People' to look at. When you talk to someone in Second Life, they look at you. Sometimes, they even look interested in what you have to say. The suspicion - in the absence of formal study - is that this helps people embed psychologically in the 'reality' in a way they cannot do with purely text-based methods.
Increasingly, Second Life is integrated with external media and methods of communication. You can actually use your own voice to speak in Second Life - though oddly, outside of business, this is not widely taken up. Possibly a lack of technology, possibly embarrassment: or maybe just that someone role-playing a character that is different in age, gender or species to their own feels that using their own voice would break the spell somewhat.
In addition to dedicated voice tools, you can link up with applications such as Skype. You can even buy a virtual phone that allows you to call directly people in and out of Second Life, much as you would on a real mobile. Direct video streaming. Presentation capabilities. Virtual reality boasts a very great deal that can assist organisations that need to communicate at a distance.
Which brings us to the last major benefit of Second Life: cost. Particularly, the cost of training - although for any organisation which operates across a number of widely dispersed geographical locations, the issue is the same. Just occasionally, a training session is inspirational.
More often, it involves transporting individuals large distances: putting them up in hotels, feeding them and then subjecting them to droned presentations supported by mediocre PowerPoint. Apologies to the professional trainers reading this. That is the worst case. Some is far better. Nonetheless, cost - and time spent away from the workplace - remains an issue.
According to AHG Inc: 'Second Life provides a great opportunity for both traditional in-class and distance education. It is the next logical step in the development of e-learning, web-based learning and flash simulations.'
Increasingly, organisations are using Second Life for tasks that require involvement, interaction, plus some degree of presentation - without requiring that individuals travel vast distances to do so. Training is one option. Conferences another.
A few weeks back I attended a conference in Second Life. It was organised by Clever Zebra - a company dedicated to supporting business within the virtual world. We heard presentations from a range of speakers, globally, on the future of virtual business.
Apart from having to sit next to a werewolf (an occupational hazard for those working in Second Life), and apart from the fact that it started at 5 pm (because a proportion of attendees and presenters were from California), it was a very effective way of immersing myself in current issues around vBusiness.
Some of the froth that always attends these events might have felt a little 'geeky' to those who are not used to virtual reality, but the output was perfectly serious. One highlight was a 'mixed reality' panel, chaired by Sandra Kearney of IBM, which linked out virtual session with a real world session going on simultaneously in the United States.
IBM has invested heavily in Second Life, with a highly publicised $10 million in 2007. It has more than 230 employees spending time in-world, and it owns some half-dozen islands. Some are open, but most are private, with restricted access for the public. It is also looking to build a 3D intranet where its clients will be able to discuss sensitive business information.
So far, the in-world resource seems to have been used for a number of large-scale gatherings. For instance, it provides an opportunity for employees to 'meet' the chairman. It has also been used to host virtual events such as an IBM alumni reunion.
Areas that IBM appears to be actively exploring are the development of robot avatars, business simulations, role-play and team building. This is the point at which Second Life goes beyond being a simple 'virtual presentation tool' and transforms into something else.
For instance, it is possible to create automated characters ('robots') that will deliver specific scripts in response to questions from customers or those undergoing training. It is possible to set up role play sessions - and to use the virtual environment to create a high level of reproduceability as well as control over content.
It goes without saying that for those who are familiar with the environment, it is a very good place for hosting 'tiger teams' to attack specific business issues or for brainstorming.
According to Chuck Hamilton, director of IBM's Center For Advanced Learning, the company is now using Second Life to bring new recruits up to speed without the need to travel around the company.
Chuck says: 'We're using Second Life to create a mentoring community. So if you're interested in talking to somebody who has 25 years in the business, we've built a connection environment - a social-networking tool where you profile yourself, then meet in Second Life.'
If you think Second Life can only be used for imparting soft skills, think again. Another convert to the Second Life model is Cisco Systems. Information Week reported: 'Cisco has a few hundred employees in Second Life. They have several sims that they use for user-group meetings and meetings among their own international staff. They do customer education and training in Second Life, get feedback from customers on products, and do presentations using PowerPoint, video, and streaming audio. They hold events that combine people in the real world with avatars in Second Life - a type of event that Second Lifers call 'mixed reality'.'
Many Second Life users are network engineers: these are also some of Cisco's core customers. So, in March of this year, Cisco used a virtual presentation to launch its new ASR 1000 router - costing upward of $35,000.
Meanwhile, many US universities are beginning to establish virtual training resources in Second Life for a range of subjects, including basic IT skills. In the UK, you can now study journalism in Second Life, courtesy of a course put up by the London School of Journalism. And if you'd like to gain new language skills (or refresh existing ones) this is a huge and growing area of training.
In-world recruitment - where employers use Second Life to interview a candidate for a real world job - is another major area where HR needs to be aware of developments. At present, this is a trickle, rather than a trend. But check again in two years.
So there it is: the re-hype. Second Life doesn't do a great deal of what its inventors originally claimed it would. But as an interactive, involving environment it is very useful for the sort of business tasks that require interaction and involvement.
Practising skills. Team building. Mentoring. These are all things that Second Life is good at – and for which major companies are now using it.
John also writes for the Register.