Can virtual worlds make a meaningful contribution to business -- and if so, how can they be protected from invasions of privacy and flying genitalia? ZDNet Australia gets the lowdown from Chris Collins, technical assistant to the CEO at Second Life developer Linden Lab.
"Technical assistant to the CEO" might sound like a slightly odd title, but then Linden Lab is a slightly odd business. As the developer of Second Life, the company is both poster child and whipping boy for the virtual world movement. Collins, originally born in Perth but now based in San Francisco, is naturally happy to go into cheerleader mode, especially when it comes to its popularity within Australia.
"Australia hovers around 10th or 11th for the number of users who go into Second Life on a monthly basis," he said during a telephone interview punctuated with occasional instructions to his taxi driver. "We get a pretty high profile within the company."
However, for today, Linden Lab is stuck with being the whipping boy.
I've asked Collins to address some of the common criticisms of Second Life as a business environment, as distinct from a groovy-looking place to while away a few virtual hours.
The most common use for Second Life for existing businesses -- as opposed to virtual object salespeople -- is as a training and education environment, so we'll start there.
How do you stop any Tom, Dick or e-Harry from wandering into the middle of your presumably-slightly-confidential training session?
"It is a common fear for a lot of people," Collins says. "It comes down to education really. If you are a corporation that's wanting to do meetings and have a private area, the best way to go about it is actually to own your own island.
What you can do with that is use a series of estate tools to give you full control over that island and who can access it. You can deny specific people or groups, or just make it completely private. Sun and IBM both have public and private presences. There's quite a number of companies that do have a private presence and don't have a public presence at all.
"The other thing they can do as well in controlling who registers in their private area. The registration API allows you to be able to register people for Second Life yourself, and you can send them to their starting location so when they first log in they go to the right place."
Now that we've got the developers deployed, here's another problem: what if your business PCs can't sustain the somewhat bulky client requirements for Second Life?
"One of the big drivers for us to open source our client was that type of a question: open source gives us the ability to make a thin client. We've had people who've set up the ability to get into Second Life from a Web browser, or skin the client in their own way.
We've also seen some solutions where people are hosting, in a virtual machine style model, so instead of people having to install the client on their own machine, it's all hosted and centralised."
For all that, Collins isn't convinced it's a major issue. "The fact that you need a good PC and you need to have a good Internet connection excludes what's becoming a smaller and smaller chunk of the market. Broadband is pretty much accessible globally."
Such a remark is of course a red rag to any Australian Internet user, so I ask Collins if he genuinely believes that to be the case Down Under. "Being here is always very interesting for me," he says, cautiously. "I'll go to a friend's and log into Second Life and see how it is. It seems to be getting better the last few times I've been here in terms of logging in," he said.
Collins won't be drawn on how best to improve broadband accessibility, but does remark: "I think having a good Internet structure for any economy or any country is crucial in this day and age."
Speaking of company ethics, what does Collins make of persistent Internet memes that suggest that a Second Life avatar consumes more energy than an actual breathing Brazilian peasant? More generally, are virtual worlds environmental wolves in eco-sheep clothing?
"We're open and interested in the green topic," he said. "We've had several conversations working out our actual carbon emissions", though he doesn't specify what these are. Instead, he switches to a more familiar theme: the benefits of virtual meetings.
"We conduct a lot of company meetings in Second Life. With us being able to hold virtual meetings, our carbon footprint is a lot lower. Every Friday, we have an internal staff meeting and about 60 to 80 people show up -- people from all over the globe."
OK, it's time to ask about virtual terrorism and, more specifically, how to defend your business against flying penises thrown by virtual vandalas. (An interview held in the Second Life presence of ZDNet Australia sister site CNET News.com earlier this year was disrupted by just such an outbreak of airborne genitalia.)
As you can imagine, there's a brief moment of uncomfortable silence when I raise this issue, but Collins eventually takes the bait. "I think again it comes down to the first point we discussed. With your estate tools you have the ability to say who can create things at your location, so you need to turn that off. It's an educational process."
Of course, the fact that this ability is switched on by default is potentially problematic, Collins admits. "But all you need to do is log in and hit a check box and it becomes private."
Gymnophobics can breathe a sigh of relief.