'Second Life' Lessons: Cisco, IBM Pace Corporate Push Into Virtual Worlds

Companies as varied as Toyota, Dell, Sears, and Adidas have all established bulkheads in the 3-D virtual world called "Second Life." Is this influx of brands an exciting precursor of how we'll be conducting business very soon, or the ultimate exercise in corporate flat-footedness?
Indeed, one of the most disconcerting aspects of wandering through the beautiful but vacant commercial spaces of Second Life is that none of the major companies has bothered to "staff" their virtual spaces. There are no avatars to greet you, show you around, answer your questions. Although theoretically these halls will eventually hum with users who will share their experiences with, say, a certain model car, or recommend a good book to read, right now the social part of the shopping experience -- which is supposedly what Second Life offers over the Web -- is completely lacking.

The stage at the Sun Pavilion is surrounded by lush trees and a gentle wind is constantly blowing even when no one is there to enjoy it.

(click image for larger view)

The stage at the Sun Pavilion is surrounded by lush trees and a gentle wind is constantly blowing even when no one is there to enjoy it.

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Hiring and training employees to act as avatars to greet and guide visitors is a logical next step for real-world businesses to take in their Second Life initiatives, says PARC's Ducheneaut. "But a major change of mindset is involved. To do this right, it will be extremely labor intensive," he says. "You need these spaces to be warm and welcoming; this means there have to be avatars there at all times, and real human beings behind those avatars. This will require a tremendous commitment of resources."

About the weirdly echoing halls of the virtual Sun Pavilion when there isn't an event happening, Melissinos did a nudge-nudge-wink-wink "no comment." "Let's just say it hasn't gone unnoticed," he says.

Back to that penguin. As it turns out, it is a prominent Second Life blogger who goes by the name of Nobody Fugazi. In real life he's a programmer -- hence his genuine interest in Cisco products. "He's very cool, very funny and we welcome him to our events," says Renaud. "He just likes representing himself as a penguin."

In spite of the state of uncertainty for companies in Second World, the risk of not getting into Second Life is much greater than the risk of jumping into it too soon, says Renaud. "We need to identify the hurdles as well as the opportunities, and start working on them now," he says.

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