IBM: Second Life still risky for business

Although the virtual world offers companies a platform to reach out to customers, IBM says business transactions should be conducted elsewhere.
Written by Lynn Tan @ Redhat, Contributor
updateSINGAPORE--Second Life may be a "rich and creative environment" for companies to interact with customers, but the virtual world is still not suitable for conducting business transactions, says IBM executives.

Speaking to reporters via teleconference Thursday, to announce the expansion of its contact center in Second Life, Maggie Blaney, director of ibm.com, told reporters that Second Life is neither suitable nor secure enough for transactions with contractual agreements.

"Basically, Second Life is a public marketplace, and when we're talking about private, confidential or secure transactions, we need to make sure that those happen outside of a public marketplace, in a secure environment," Blaney said.

Paula Summa, worldwide general manager of ibm.com, illustrated Blaney's point using a scenario that IBM's contact center staff could encounter in the virtual world.

Citing the example of someone who wants to buy IBM hardware or software, or needs help to solve business problems, Summa said an IBM sales avatar could either help the client avatar or connect the client avatar to the appropriate IBM expert or resource, within or outside Second Life.

"[However], if the dialogue progresses to the point of sales, this would be handled by a more secure, traditional method, such as over the phone or via IBM's Web site," she added.

Making virtual contact
Launched in May, Big Blue's 3D online contact center in Second Life--dubbed virtual business center--has grown its staff strength to the current team of 44 sales representatives from around the world. Each sales person is represented by an avatar.

With the recent addition of about seven sales representations from the Asia-Pacific region, such as Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore, operation hours of IBM's virtual contact center has been extended to 24 hours a day, Mondays to Fridays.

The IBM sales avatars can now communicate with customer avatars in more languages, too. These include Bahasa Malaysia, Cantonese, Tagalog and Mandarin.

"We are very early in the life of 3D virtual worlds, and especially in leveraging those worlds to accomplish real business," said Foo Yan Nuen, IBM Singapore's country manager of ibm.com, noting concerns relating to system stability, availability and security, as well as avatar behavior in Second Life.

Foo added that while "there is no immediate business objective" in this initiative, the 3D online contact center is a key part of Big Blue's "experimentation to understand how to engage with clients in an immersive environment".

According to the company, 10,000 avatars have visited the IBM virtual business center since it opened in May.

Commercial businesses are not the only ones jumping on the Second Life bandwagon to reach out to customers. Governments worldwide are also eyeing opportunities in the virtual world.

Balaji Sadasivan, Singapore's Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Information, Communications and the Arts, told participants at the State of Play V conference held here this week that a handful of government agencies in the island-state have established presence in Second Life. They include the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and the Economic Development Board (EDB).

Earlier this year, IDA procured a small island in the virtual world, and partnered with Nanyang Polytechnic to "experiment hands-on experiential learning" in these online environments.

When contacted by ZDNet Asia, an IDA spokesperson declined to reveal more details of its stake in Second Life, while an EDB spokesperson said the agency is adopting a wait-and-see approach. STB did not respond at press time.

Singapore is not the first or only country to make a foray into Second Life. Several U.S. government agencies, such as NASA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. House of Representatives, also have stakes in the virtual world, which are used for education, collaboration and outreach, according to a report on a U.S. government Web site.

In Japan, lawmaker Kan Suzuki has set up an office in Second Life to reach out to voters, according to a recent BBC report.

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