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4/26/2007
07:19 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Using Second Life As A Business-To-Business Tool

I just got off the phone with Cisco -- we ended up talking for a couple of hours about how Cisco is using Second Life for business-to-business communications. Turns out that quite a few Second Life users are network engineers. These are Cisco's customers, and Cisco is aggressively using Second Life to communicate with them.

I just got off the phone with Cisco -- we ended up talking for a couple of hours about how Cisco is using Second Life for business-to-business communications. Turns out that quite a few Second Life users are network engineers. These are Cisco's customers, and Cisco is aggressively using Second Life to communicate with them.

The conversation really turned my head around. Until now, I've been thinking about SL as a consumer form of entertainment and communications -- mainly entertainment -- sort of like instant messaging was 10 years ago. Now, I see that real-world business discussions are happening in Second Life today.

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."

The real value of Second Life for Cisco is the opportunity for spontaneous customer interaction, said Christian Renaud, chief architect of networked virtual environments for Cisco. "It's like a birds-of-a-feather session that goes on 'round the clock," he said. He routinely encounters customers in Second Life who want to talk to him about their needs and what they want Cisco to do. "I bump into customers and partners multiple times a day in Second Life. In 11 years at Cisco, walking through the parking lot in San Jose, I never get people come up to me and say, 'I'm a Cisco customer, have a second?'"

Renaud confirms what I've seen for myself, and learned talking to other real-life businesses in Second Life. Second Life is a social networking tool, like blogging or Web discussion forums. It's a way for people to come together and talk. It's a way for companies to come together and talk with their business partners and customers.

Cisco is involved in the Second Life Corporate Business Council, a group of 30-40 big businesses -- many of them competitors with each other -- using Second Life for business. The companies are grappling with some similar questions and problems doing business in Second Life.

One of them is security. If you're discussing confidential information in SL, how do you avoid being overheard? How do you identify who's a fellow employee and who's an eavesdropping competitor? Cisco, like several companies in Second Life, got a start at solving that problem by giving all its employee avatars the same last name -- CiscoSystems.

As another security measure, Cisco also has some public sims, and some private ones where only employees and trusted partners can go. They use the private sims for prototyping and private conversations.

I had an earlier conversation with Chris Melissinos, Chief Gaming Officer at Sun Microsystems, who noted that chat and instant messaging in Second Life isn't secure. It all goes through Linden Lab's servers. So for that reason, businesses need to be very careful what they discuss and what products they prototype in Second Life, even on private land they own.

Renaud and I talked about Second Life as a three-dimensional diagramming tool. No, that's not right -- let's make up a new buzzphrase, shall we? Let's say Second Life is a tool for holding three-dimensional visual conversations. Just as WebEx allows you to share PowerPoints over the Internet, Second Life allows you to build something you can look at from all angles, with multiple people who can discuss the object in realtime.

Renaud described how Cisco built an entire network diagram for a corporate customer in Second Life. I know from conversations with IBM that they're doing similar things.

I know some people can't hold a serious business conversation without a pen and paper to draw with; Second Life is made for those people.

One big liability to Second Life as a business tool: It's hard to import data from other sources. There's a couple of projects to build Web browsers into the Second Life client. One day, you'll be able to import sales data from an Oracle database, create a three-dimensional diagram of that data that changes in near-realtime, and hold a meeting of top corporate executives all over the world in Second Life to discuss the results. You can't do that today without using a lot of roll-your-own tools.

Here's a neat thing that Renaud told me: But some of Cisco's employees coming into Second Life were spending $300 for a custom avatar. That's a ridiculous amount of money, you can get a perfectly nice avatar and clothes for less than $10.

The solution: Cisco acquired site licenses for some attractive, businesslike avatar skins in Second Life. They also acquired a site licenses for avatar clothes, because finding business-appropriate attire for your sim in SL can be difficult. Now, when a Cisco employee enters Second Life, he goes through Cisco's in-world orientation process, and then goes through the Second Life Company Store, where he or she can outfit himself in a business-appropriate avatar and clothes.

By the way, I've found SF Designs to be a great source for men's business clothes. I bought about 10 identical suits from them in different colors (including one goofy one in red and green for Christmastime, with a realistically cheezy Christmas necktie). They're on-sale now for L$300 each, that's a about a buck and a quarter US$.

I've been talking with several real-life companies about their Second Life efforts as part of a big article I'm working on. If you work for a RL business, and want to talk to me about how you're using Second Life, give me a shout-out by e-mail.

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