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Public Virtual Worlds: Ready for Corporate Prime Time?

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By Scott Randall, BrandGames

I first became interested in the idea of business simulations as a guest at a Systems Dynamics conference at MIT in 1990, but the concept of immersive virtual learning platforms have been around ever since automated teaching machines were built with punch-card technology in the 1950s. Now, massively multiplayer game technology allows interconnectivity, 3D graphics, and advanced physics-based behaviors for multiple users. All of a sudden, the possibilities for computer-based simulations seem endless.

Corporations are reacting by investing time and money in the creation of outposts in the virtual world in the belief, or hope, that they will be appropriate for a range of corporate initiatives, including

  • Branding and advertising
  • Product testing and market research
  • Corporate training and learning
  • Talent recruiting
  • Organizational collaboration

The potential that virtual worlds hold for business is palpable, but are public virtual worlds the right answer? Are these worlds designed to fill many of the roles that are being imagined for them by media outlets and business operators? Let’s take a look.

A Marketer’s Dream?

For first mover marketers, public worlds offer a capability to generate mainstream media coverage. Now that the novelty has worn off and the press has moved on somewhat, this benefit might be waning. Assuming that the millions of alleged users in a world exist, and even if the world is continuously upgraded, it is vulnerable to user-base shrinkage as more robust and universal standards–based solutions emerge.

Finally, with no legal access to information about users, it is difficult for marketers to know anything about the people they are recruiting for a focus group or a product test. How could one tell, for instance, that the people who show up at a test are actually the people who received invites and not competitors or hackers?

Let’s Have a Meeting...

Because public worlds are anonymous platforms, which anyone may use any way he or she chooses, users can be exposed to lewd content, nuisance behavior, vandalism, intellectual property theft, fraud, and other abuses.1

Not to mention the emergence of hacker groups dedicated to disrupting corporate “pollution” in public worlds. Although owners move to outlaw, disallow, and disincentivize nuisance behavior, these activities have no real-world legal consequences.

Buckle Your Seatbelts...

Building a corporate presence in a public virtual world means investing in a platform that is maintained, and sometimes significantly altered, at the sole discretion of its owner/operator. Owners schedule maintenance or sometimes shut their server grids down in an emergency2 with no regard to any in-world activities, public or private, that might be scheduled or in progress.

All content resides on the server grid, so nothing in the universe is accessible during these maintenance periods. In a recent blog post, a virtual world employee likened maintenance upgrades to “changing the engine of an airliner at 40,000 feet.”3

The Fine Print

The Terms of Service of some virtual worlds make intellectual property ownership a questionable proposition, by some readings. The case law around digital property rights is in its infancy, and with virtual worlds at the very edge of that legal envelope, the security of intellectual content has yet to be defined.

Although some operators clearly state that real-world copyright laws apply to content inside their virtual world, once inside the universe, product designs and tests are susceptible to theft by residents who might alter designs to use and distribute themselves. This might or might not be what corporate R&D teams have in mind when they strive for product innovation.

What to Do? Forward Thinking Alternatives to Public Virtual Worlds for Business

Organizations have much to gain from the leaps in technology behind multiplayer virtual worlds, but companies might be best advised to begin considering alternatives to public worlds now. Organizations can design, deploy, and maintain their own proprietary virtual universe solutions.

Proprietary universes are already in use by Fortune 100 companies such as Deloitte & Touche and by organizations such as the U.S. Army, which uses them for activities like distance and simulation-based learning, culture building, and recruiting.4

Operators claim that these solutions simultaneously trim real-world operating costs and provide a risk-free environment for skills development and experimentation.5 Proprietary worlds, contrary to the free-for-all nature of public worlds, can be structured to leverage an organization’s information technology infrastructure. These worlds are maintained and scaled by the owner organization, which also controls the functionality and performance levels, eliminating nuisance behavior by design. Limitations on server bandwidth, reliance on controlling third parties, the risks of obsolescence or undefined upgrade paths are eliminated or significantly reduced.

All intellectual property transmitted within a proprietary virtual universe is owned and controlled by the owner organization and information can be viewed, flagged, or mined for meaningful knowledge base data. Finally, the owner controls the content, tone, and messaging to which employees or consumers are exposed.

The proprietary world created by the United States Army has 8 million unique registered users and is touted by the U.S. military as an overwhelming success.6 Deloitte & Touche sponsors a mission-based virtual business world that is played by thousands of high school students across the country each year.

There is no question that it is more expensive to build a world than to inhabit one. After a sober review of strategic business goals and corporate technology protocols, however, there might be a few companies that would trade the benefits of a proprietary solution for the free-for-all of a user-created public one.

In closing, it is important to acknowledge that virtual technologies are in their infancy. The potential is almost too big to see. Companies interested in exploring virtual worlds for business are advised to look beyond the inch-deep coverage in the media to the field as a whole, and make the benefits real by assessing if or how there is a fit with their corporate business strategy.

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