On getting a Second Life

Real businesses have colonized Second Life. Toyota, for example, has a showroom from which you can test drive a simulated Toyota Scion. Dell has a large building that serves as a pass-through to its website. And T-Mobile has a brand promotion area dedicated to music and dancing. But many of the "real world" businesses that opened in Second Life are struggling.

Second Life is a virtual world "populated" by "avatars" (cartoonish remote controlled mannequins, basically) driven by "real" people sitting in front of their PCs. (One of the hazards of writing about Second Life is that you use a lot of quotation marks.) Second Life is "constructivist:" Its owner (Linden Lab) builds nothing but empty islands one mile square. The avatars (actually their human controllers) are responsible for creating roads, buildings, trees, cars, pathogens, etc. The result is a visually rich and eclectic "world."

"Real" businesses have colonized Second Life. Toyota, for example, has a showroom from which you can test drive a simulated Toyota Scion. Dell has a large building that serves as a pass-through to its website. And T-Mobile has a brand promotion area dedicated to music and dancing (which, every time I go there, for some reason, is absolutely packed with Germans.)

So What?

Accenture Technology Labs' Kelly Dempski has been watching the Second Life phenomenon for a long time, and has developed opinions. For a summary, read on.

Many of the "real world" businesses that opened in Second Life are struggling. American Apparel, which arrived with some fanfare, recently closed. Others are far, far down in the visitor rankings—deserted, in fact, most of the time. The sites that see the bulk of the traffic are "adult." In fact, according to Kelly, all of the marketing sites combined (with the exception of T-Mobile, which pays its visitors to visit) don't have the traffic of a single adult site. But it's always been true that adult content leads the way in new media (books, video, the Internet); maybe this is just a phase on the way to something more wholesome.

What does seem to work in Second Life is one-off event hosting. If you have an excuse for a party (such as the introduction of the Scion), you may be able to create buzz and gather a group of interested spectators. (Accenture has used this approach to conduct recruiting sessions with some success.) But Kelly points out that SL's very "physicality" (his word) creates as many problems as it solves. For example, if there are a bunch of "people" crowded around the simulated Scion (as might happen in the "real" world), you won't be able to see it—whereas if you were on a website, you'd be able to see it clearly—along with millions of other people. And in a SL meeting, only a few people can sit (or float—you can fly in Second Life) near the boss—whereas a webcast would let us all see her clearly.

Physicality is key in Kelly's mind. Where does it help rather than annoy? His favorite example of helping: A SL-based refinery evacuation drill was recently run. This sort of situation—where people's ability to get in each other's way is crucial for success—is perfect for the physicality of Second Life. Architectural walkthroughs might be another application. Also landscape design, certain kinds of civil engineering and even—when the visual and tactile fidelity get high enough—training for surgery, auto repair, flower arranging and dentistry.

In any case. Second Life, with its numerous “people,” “stores” and “meetings” is a fascinating phenomenon. I encourage you to experience it for yourself (especially if you plan to pass judgment on it). And then take the time to tell your friends—during which you’ll have a chance to give your “quotation digits" a workout.

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