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Virtual Worlds Getting Friendlier For Businesses

Second Life developer Linden Lab is teaming up with IBM for a version of the service that companies can run behind their firewall. Meanwhile, a startup called Multiverse is building virtual worlds software that runs in either a standalone client or a Web browser.

Mitch Wagner

April 3, 2008

5 Min Read

One of the chief obstacles for using Second Life for business is that it's only available as a service. Second Life runs on server farms owned and operated by Linden Lab, and all text chats and VoIP calls in Second Life run through those servers. That makes security-conscious companies reluctant to use Second Life for proprietary conversations.

Multiverse lets you build virtual worlds that you can view with rich 3-D graphics through its proprietary client (top) or inside a Flash browser. (Click the images for a closer look.)

Linden Lab and IBM plan to announce on Thursday that they're teaming up to run Second Life on servers inside IBM's firewall, for IBM internal projects. The two companies plan to pilot the service to allow other companies to run Second Life inside their firewalls by year's end, and make the service generally available later on.

Using the service being tested by IBM, its users will be able to log in to the private server behind IBM's firewall, and move back and forth between that and the public Second Life grid, taking their avatars and possessions with them.

IBM will use the service for conferences, special events, and meetings.

"This is really about satisfying a market demand," said Ginsu Yoon, Linden Lab VP for business affairs. "There are enterprises that can be very comfortable with a hosted service, and there are customers who really want to have things inside their infrastructure." Linden Lab wants to be able to serve both groups.

The IBM announcement comes at a tough time for Second Life. The service saw explosive signup and growth rates in late 2006 and early 2007, but growth stalled later in the year. The number of dedicated users -- people who spend significant amounts of time in-world -- has been flat since late last year, at about a half-million users. Overall, users have created 13.1 million Second Life accounts since the service launched four years ago.

Big companies flocked to Second Life for marketing last year, but since then many companies, including American Apparel, Starwood Hotels, and Pontiac, have left the service (although some, like Starwood, said they always planned only a limited-time engagement). InformationWeek's parent company, United Business Media, shut down its CMP Metaverse business unit late last month. Other companies, like IBM, Cisco Systems, and Playboy, continue to operate in Second Life. And the service has a thriving culture of small businesses that operate only in Second Life.

Among the problems driving users away: Second Life is unstable, difficult to use, and users need to be running relatively powerful desktop computers. Philip Rosedale, co-founder of the company, said last month he's stepping aside as CEO, and the company is searching for a new CEO who can bring veteran management skills.

Virtual Worlds For Rehearsals

IBM is using virtual worlds technologies from Linden Lab and Activeworlds to offer "rehearsals," or training exercises, to its services team, said Jim Spohrer, director of service research for IBM Almaden Research Center.

IBM simulates project management and customer interaction in virtual worlds, he said.

Rehearsal services in virtual worlds provide the benefits of face-to-face rehearsals and role-playing, while saving time and travel costs, Spohrer said. Also, virtual worlds are flexible in ways that reality isn't. "You can experiment with a lot of alternatives and designs," Spohrer said. "Also, as you start developing these rehearsal services, you can start reusing the components from one service to another."

Right now, IBM is using the service for internal training, but hopes to offer it for clients as well.

IBM has built a software toolkit for rehearsals that's platform-independent, with interfaces that run on Second Life or Activeworlds.

IBM is a dedicated user of virtual worlds technology, with thousands of employees using Second Life and other services.

The World In A Browser

Another obstacle to using virtual worlds: Companies building virtual worlds have to choose between realistic, detailed services, like Second Life and World of Warcraft, which require high-powered machines and dedicated software clients; or lightweight worlds like Webkinz and Club Penguin, which have simplistic graphics but can run inside any browser that supports Flash.

Multiverse plans on Thursday to announce that it's beefing up its toolkit to allow developers to build worlds that can run either in Multiverse's own software client, with rich graphics, or in a Web browser with simplified graphics.

"You can have one virtual world that you can access through the standard Multiverse world client, or in 2-D through the Flash interface," said Corey Bridges, co-founder and executive producer of Multiverse.

Multiverse is different from most virtual worlds platforms in that it's just building software, which it is licensing out to other people to build their own worlds. The first worlds built using Multiverse technology will be available to the public in the third quarter of this year, Bridges said. Until then, Multiverse has built its own Virtual Times Square and fantasy kingdom as demo worlds.

Unlike Second Life, which supports about 40 to 70 people on a single server, Multiverse says it will support up to 2,000 people per server, making it more attractive for big events.

Multiverse is a 4-year-old startup with 28 employees, which shipped Version 1 of its software last year. The four co-founders, including Bridges, were pre-IPO employees of Netscape, and are trying to bring the same business model to virtual worlds, providing technology and letting other companies build their own content on the technology. The Multiverse server is to a virtual world what a Web server is to a Web site.

Another unusual element of the Multiverse business model: Anyone can use the software and build public worlds for free, without paying Multiverse, so long as the developer lets users into their world for free. If the developer charges for access to the world, Multiverse will take a 10% cut of the revenue. Multiverse is making the server available for free to many developers in order to build an ecosystem -- Multiverse wants to encourage end users to download and install its client -- by making many worlds available that can be accessed through the software.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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