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6/16/2007
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Mitch Kapor: Virtual Worlds Are Like A Drug Experience

Virtual worlds are driven by "crazy people" with a shared mystical vision, but -- like the PC and Internet revolutions -- they'll result in practical benefits for everyone, said PC pioneer Mitch Kapor.

PC pioneer Mitch Kapor described his moment of insight into the potential of virtual worlds as being like a drug experience.

Kapor, who is chairman of Linden Lab, which operates Second Life, said he realized the potential of Second Life at an in-world Suzanne Vega concert last year. Vega performed from a recording studio, and her audience were sitting at personal computers all around the world, and yet the concert brought them all together in the same virtual place.

The realization, he said, was like the drug experiences of the '60s.

And Kapor is not alone. "A huge number of passionate early adopters had some kind of mystical experience," he said, delivering the keynote address at the Virtual Worlds conference sponsored by IBM and MIT, at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass., on Friday.

"What's driving virtual worlds is a shared sense, by a few hundred thousand crazy people, that this is important, and they're going to drop everything and go after this," he said.

But what's the practical value? Selling virtual worlds to business managers isn't easy, said Ron Burns, president of Proton Media, which operates virtual worlds for remote learning.

"We have to put an ROI on a mystical experience. It's not easy," he said, winning laughs from the audience of a panel about the business value of virtual worlds.

The business value is that training in virtual worlds is faster and more effective than in other channels, Burns said. Simulations have a long history of being used to train pilots and surgeons, giving them an opportunity to fail in a safe environment, before finally succeeding. He compared training in virtual worlds to a child playing a video game, who tries and fails hundreds of times to master a level, but then succeeds and can fly through that level on the way to the next one he's trying to master.

Also, people are more likely to share information across silos using virtual worlds to communicate, he said.

Studying leadership in virtual worlds can lead to conclusions that apply in the real world, said Thomas Malone, a professor of management a the MIT Sloan School of Management. Leadership is a function, not just of the individual, but the environment. Games create a structure to allow leadership to emerge, by providing rewards, transparency about player performance statistics, and multiple communication channels. That makes it easier for people to manage themselves, which in turn makes it easier to lead them.

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