Will voice make Second Life more business friendly?

Updated below: Phillip Rosedale, founder and CEO of Second Life, said Tuesday that the company plans to roll out 3D voice applications in the next few months. And more business applications could arise with voice in Second Life.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Updated below: Phillip Rosedale, founder and CEO of Second Life, said Tuesday that the company plans to roll out 3D voice applications in the next few months. And more business applications could arise with voice in Second Life. 

According to Rosedale, Second Life is developing a voice application (Techmeme discussion) that will enable users to overhear others, determine where the voice is coming from and deliver an experience better than the telephone. "I think voice will be a big issue," says Rosedale. "This will be a transformation in human communication."

Rosedale described an internal

meeting in Second Life where he could overhear a conversation in the back of the room. Voice communications combined with better realism over the next five years could enable a host of new business applications.

Speaking at the Gartner Symposium ITxpo, Rosedale said companies that are experimenting with advertising and public relations (gallery right) are just scratching the surface of what they can do.

Indeed, Gartner has been pushing virtual worlds like Second Life hard at its conference this week, but it's very early for CIOs to worry about how they are going to use virtual worlds. Gartner estimates that 80 percent of active Internet users and Fortune 500 analysts will hang a shingle in a virtual world by year end 2011. For now, most of the Second Life experiments have revolved around branding.

When asked by Gartner analyst Jim Lundy whether the current PR-applications in Second Life are just a fad, Rosedale noted that the 180,000 people a day in Second Life "is a big crowd for advertisers."

Overall, however, the real business benefit may be talking to customers and using their input to design products. "Business opportunities abound by engaging with people through a design process or review of what you're doing," said Rosedale.

Rosedale said collaboration and meetings will also a draw for businesses, but Rosedale noted that Second Life's voice applications may be of more use to enterprises. Why? It's easier to gather market intelligence via interviews. "I do think people even today have a willingness to engage in a conversation beyond what they'd do chair to chair," said Rosedale.

What remains to be seen is whether virtual voice makes Second Lifers clam up. 

Lundy did note that more companies are finding business uses for Second Life. He cited one company that has been using Second Life to recruit talent.

The big challenge for enterprise use of Second Life will be the learning curve. Lundy noted that he played in Second Life many hours trying to get his avatar to look just right. That time isn't easy to come by for other executives.

Rosedale acknowledged that Second Life startup packs for enterprises could make the virtual world more business friendly. This pack could allow a business user to scan a picture and create an avatar easily.

Among other topics:

The Second Life grid: Rosedale said the company and the open source community will help the virtual world scale as it grows.

"The architecture of Second Life is very sound for the long term," said Rosedale, noting that the virtual world is designed like the Web. The issue: Second Life has to maintain some services centrally, which taxes the computing power. Rosedale added that Second Life will document how it built the virtual world and outline the architecture. Rosedale said that should allay some fears about Second Life stability.

Rosedale said Second Life will enable hosting providers to run their own virtual environment and servers. In this model, which isn't going to be announced soon, an enterprise would essentially get a Second Life map and setup to host on its server.

Second Life's IT and uptime: Rosedale said Second Life is going to use rolling upgrades so that it won't have to take down the grid when it updates. "We're trying to expand our technical operations," said Rosedale. "Our goal is to get to a place where the grid won't have downtime."

On the competitive field: Rosedale said it's likely there will only be a few virtual world juggernauts because of the network effects. He compared Second Life to eBay and Amazon, which got scale and held users. In other words, it may be too socially unpalatable to move from Second Life.

What should businesses do today? Rosedale asked technology executives to open their firewalls. He also said that companies don't need to come up with a big strategy for virtual worlds, but should "encourage experimentation at the grass roots level."


In the second keynote at Gartner, Dr. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, VP technical strategy & innovation at IBM also touched on some core issues revolving around virtual worlds and Second Life. His main point was that IT systems modeling will be applied to business in general.

Wladawsky-Berger riffed on how businesses should treat themselves as systems and model all parts of an enterprise--people, processes and information. By modeling these elements in a virtual world a company could walk through the total impact of technology. Think of it as a flight simulator for business.

He also noted how Second Life could be used in the future to train surgeons by replicating a hospital. These simulations, however, would need more computing power--presumably from IBM.

In an interesting exchange, Wladawsky-Berger talked about how identity management applies to avatars. He said that business etiquette will emerge for avatars and how you present yourself in various situations. "You don't want to be a chipmunk avatar if you're going to meet clients," said Wladawsky-Berger.

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