The two of us met in a spotless, glass-walled boardroom, video screen at one end, photos of the organization's leaders at the other, and a large table commanding the center of the space. Nothing alarming. Larry Pixel's mop of blond hair, wraparound glasses, and tight black T-shirt seemed a bit casual for the setting, but having arrived at the meeting in jeans myself, I wasn't one to judge.

My first order of business at this sit-down with the CEO of the New Media Consortium was simply making my way to a chair. It was my first time at NMC's new campus, and the last thing I wanted to do was miss the seat and land on the floor. Larry (aka Laurence Johnson, PhD) would forgive a newbie, but I wanted to make a good impression.

I fumbled my way to a spot, and Larry took the seat beside me but quickly thought better of it, jumped up, and flew to the other side of the table so that we could see each other face to face. The meeting was short, maybe 10 minutes. We viewed some slides on the screen; he had a laptop on the table that I looked at; and we tried to examine a book, although I found it a bit blurry and he had a little problem with it falling partway through the table.

Before I knew it, we said goodbye and vanished. My meeting as an avatar — with an avatar — in a virtual boardroom in Second Life, a 3-D virtual world, was over. But my conversation with Johnson, which we had been having by telephone the whole time, continued …

Most people who are familiar with the concept of a multi-user virtual environment are either under 30 or extremely skeptical. And only a fraction of the people aware of online virtual worlds are looking at them in terms of their potential for serious meetings. But the thought leaders are out there — and so are a surprising number of virtual world-based training meetings and events.

For the uninitiated, here are the basics: 3-Donline environments incorporate computer graphics and sound to create an online space that many users can experience at once. Each participant is represented in the virtual world by an avatar — in most cases, a human form — rendered on every other user's computer. As a user's avatar moves through the virtual world, he or she can be seen by any other user viewing that part of the world.

Avatars can communicate with each other, usually via a chat program or instant messaging system, but small groups often converse via conference call. To reach a larger audience, audio can be broadcast to everyone in a specific area (say, a virtual auditorium).

Some virtual worlds are created as role-playing games, where users take on an identity and play toward a goal, such as the relatively well-known World of Warcraft online game. But other worlds exist as a place for residents simply to explore, build, and interact with others, with no specific endgame. These include virtual worlds such as There, Entropia Universe, and, most significantly, Second Life (see the “Look Who's Virtual” box), which celebrated its millionth resident on October 18, 2006, and by press time in January had skyrocketed to more than 2,835,000.

Virtual Blue

Chuck Hamilton, director of IBM's center for advanced learning, is one of that multitude. Hamilton, whose kilt-clad Second Life avatar goes by the name Longg Weeks, is among those at the forefront of IBM's drive into virtual worlds. The company's Second Life land holdings have grown from one island to 12 islands in the past year.

IBM is using Second life to experiment with complex system visualization for clients in insurance, government, and medical fields, but training and meetings are also getting a lot of attention. Hamilton estimates that the company has held hundreds of events in the past year, such as the meetings he routinely holds with his geographically dispersed staff; a handful of “major” meetings (of about 150 people each), which have included events for IBM alumni and a press conference by IBM chairman Sam Palmisano's avatar; and virtual world “onboarding,” where new hires and interns are being brought together for their first taste of the company and lessons in corporate policy, culture, and products.

The last part started as a pilot project in August for a few hundred new employees in India and will be expanded in 2007, including a program called Fresh Blue, which is specifically for interns in China. “We hire hundreds of people a year. You can't bring all those people together easily,” says Hamilton. And while face-to-face meetings might be preferred, introducing people to the company through a 3-D experience is far superior to a conference call, webinar, or other 2-D e-learning event, he says. “All things being equal, people want to work with their friends. Most meetings don't build collaborative friendship.” But with Second Life, Hamilton says, the No. 1 benefit in terms of onboarding is “building friendship circles.” One reason: “You can see me; you know more about me,” says Hamilton, also noting that “there's something about the playfulness [of Second Life]. People are more open and free talking to each other.”

Hamilton also believes that new hires get up to speed faster through an immersive experience. There's no solid science yet, he says, but “memory in 3-D might be better than in 2-D.”

More Human than a Phone Call

In a 2007 New Year's Day post on his blog, IBM's Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president, technical strategy and innovation, predicted that “highly visual interfaces and virtual worlds will become increasingly important for interacting with applications, communicating with people, and engaging in commerce.” He noted that one of the main attractions is that people are able to “communicate in ways that for many feel more ‘human’ than phone calls or instant messaging.

“Clearly, virtual meetings are not a substitute for physical meetings, but that is not the choice we usually face,” wrote Wladawsky-Berger. “In IBM, as in many companies, we spend a lot of our day in conference calls with people all around the world. The choice is not whether to have those meetings in person — but how to make the meetings more effective. As many have been discovering, virtual world meetings might be one of the ways of significantly improving the quality and ‘feeling’ of such meetings involving multiple people in remote locations.”

Georgina Castanon (aka Anita Cassini in SL) couldn't agree more. As director of SOA (service-oriented architecture) and webshare marketing for IBM, based in New York, she works with a team of 23 people from around the globe (including Argentina, the U.K., and Canada) who meet in person once or twice a year, but from week to week communicate by phone. For several months now, Castanon has brought her staff meetings to Second Life. They're still communicating by phone, but they're also “in-world” together. “It's the only way I can get my team to interact on a different basis,” she says.

The Second Life element has built relationships among the group, she says, because people experience each other as personalities, seeing the way that they dress and move through the space. She also finds that they build camaraderie by working together to learn and maneuver the Second Life tools. After a recent in-world meeting in the floating pod above IBM's Almaden Island, she and the rest of her team teleported to the simulation of New York's Rockefeller Center, where they donned skates and glided their avatars around the ice.

She describes the culture of Second Life as “completely friendly and open,” and that, she says, “has helped my team interact. … My team is waiting for the next meeting.”


Go Climb a Tree

Mega-advertising agency Leo Burnett has concept and design staff in 83 countries, and improving connections among these remote locations is exactly what it has in mind for its Second Life “ideas hub,” expected to open early this year.

The aim, says corporate affairs associate Abby Lovett, is to create an “art school lounge” atmosphere for its 2,400 “creatives” around the world, bringing them together to share ideas. But instead of designing buildings and boardrooms, the agency's Second Life space will be a “fantasy-inspired apple orchard.” The idea was “not to create another company Intranet,” Lovett says. Rather, she says, it will be a place to meet and share ideas. “It's an opportunity to be inspired outside our own four walls.”

In addition to serving as a gathering point for the company's creative brainpower, Leo Burnett plans to extend several face-to-face events into the virtual space. Its Cannes Prediction Events will be among the first. In May, before the Cannes Advertising Festival in June, the company rents theaters in several cities and brings in local clients and employees to view a reel of the year's best advertising created by Leo Burnett and its competitors. This year, the video will also be shown in Second Life, bringing the event to a much broader audience.

Similarly, a presentation on risk-taking marketing ideas created by Leo Burnett and Contagious magazine was shown at several marketing industry events in 2006, and the hope is that screenings in the new orchard will continue conversations on the topic through 2007.

New Media Campus

When the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation held a press conference in New York in October to announce a $50 million investment in digital media programs, Second Life avatars were in the audience. A video of the event was streamed in real time to a Second Life amphitheater, where about 65 avatars watched. The New York audience could see pictures of the SL gathering, and the avatars were able to e-mail their questions.

The meeting space was on the Second Life campus of the Austin, Texas-based New Media Consortium, a 14-year-old, not-for-profit group of nearly 200 universities, museums, corporations, and other organizations, including the MacArthur Foundation, that are interested in applying technology to learning and creative expression. NMC opened a major campus in-world in April 2006, and since then has held hundreds of events there. NMC's CEO Laurence Johnson, PhD (aka Larry Pixel) says NMC has approached Second Life as a research project. “We've had two-person meetings, three- to five-person meetings, brainstorming meetings, mostly presentations. … We've experimented with playful meetings, formal meetings, and everything in between. We wanted to find out how it was different. It's fundamentally different.”

Comparing Second Life to 2-D Web meetings, Johnson focuses on its immersion qualities. “If we meet in Second Life, it changes the interaction. You extend yourself into your avatar.”

Among the notable meetings at NMC's virtual campus have been the Symposium on the Impact of Digital Media, which attracted 1,300 people over the 12-day event, which included “live” keynotes, panel discussions, and presentations; the opening of an art exhibit; two press conferences, live music feeds (with avatars “performing”); the announcement of winners of a Second Life photo contest, and much more.

Johnson predicts a lag before the corporate world in general buys in to the idea of 3-D e-meetings. “What we're doing is really two to three years ahead of when people will consider it seriously.” He notes that managing feedback and interaction in a Second Life meeting is still an issue, and the learning curve and technology requirements can be a barrier. Laptops typically don't have the power to deal with the simulations, and using “anything less than a cable modem is a not worth your time,” he says. In Second Life, users typically need to spend five or six hours getting to know the system — registering; getting an avatar; learning how to walk, sit, fly, teleport, chat, and so on — before they can effectively attend an event. But many people are impatient, Johnson says. “People will show up [at a event] and the first thing they'll ask is, ‘How do I turn around?’”

Virtual Education and Beyond

Despite the challenges, NMC's campus is going strong, with plans to expand in 2007 from 16 acres to 112 acres, adding a theater complex and a life sciences/medical complex, among other facilities.

Creating educational simulations is envisioned for the new medical center, a subject near to the heart of Lawrence Miller, PhD (aka Lorenzo Stork), director of Continuing Medical Education at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine-Chattanooga. Miller is consulting on the design of NMC's new virtual trauma center, but he's also hard at work creating his own Second Life continuing medical education event on hypertension in diabetic patients, which he expects to hold by June at the latest.

With a grant from Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee, Miller has a design firm building patient avatars that will be able to display a variety of vital statistics. Plans for the course are still evolving, but one idea is for doctors (as avatars) to interact with patient avatars, asking questions and gathering data. Then, guided by medical librarian avatars, the docs would jump into Web environments specifically for healthcare workers in order to learn better research techniques as they determine a patient's diagnosis and treatment. Miller says he is working hard to use the virtual capabilities to their fullest and not replicate what can be done in a face-to-face environment.

Miller's career has spanned a variety of learning technologies, from slides to podcasting, and Second Life, he says, is the logical extension. Miller says medical residents and faculty show interest when he makes presentations about Second Life, but the response from medical students is, “It's about time!”

“Once we get past the technical issues, this [virtual environments] will be a standard way we do a number of educational things,” Miller says. “We need to be ready for a different world. We need to start learning how to use this environment now.”

Second Life is hot because of the economy that has evolved — generating business opportunities and media attention — and because of its community of artists. The landscapes, architecture, and art are stimulating and creative. But observers agree that Second Life is just start of the 3-D Internet, where people can connect globally, visually represent their ideas, practice skills, and have fun.

“There will be more virtual worlds,” predicts NMC's Johnson. “I'm anticipating competitors — many more.” In a few years, he says, new systems will develop with fewer operating constraints, and broadband will be more advanced.

But for now, forward-looking organizations such as IBM are jumping in to test the potential of online, immersion communication. “Second Life is a playground,” says IBM's Chuck Hamilton. “For us, it's been one big experiment.”

Look Who's Virtual

The Second Life 3-D virtual world was launched in 2003 by San Francisco-based Linden Labs and has seen explosive growth and media attention in the past six months. At press time, more than 2,835,000 people had created an avatar for themselves to walk, fly, and teleport from space to space. About a third of those “residents” had logged in to the world for some amount of time in the previous two months.

Unlike most other online worlds, SL is user-created, using the construction tools Linden provides. Residents retain the rights to their creations. Linden makes its money by selling land to residents and by charging land owners monthly fees (basic membership is free). Residents control their assets and can buy and sell goods and services using Linden dollars (which can be exchanged for real-world currencies).

If a 3-D online community seems a little too silly for the corporate world, consider just a handful of the many mainstream organizations that have jumped into Second Life:

The Kids Get It

STARWOOD HOTELS AND RESORTS opened a prototype of its aloft brand hotel in SL last fall. The first real aloft properties open in 2008. Later this winter, the company plans to hold in-world focus groups with hotel developers and others after an upgrade of the property is complete. Visitors were invited to submit design improvements.

  • REUTERS news agency launched an “in-world” bureau in October, dedicating a full-time reporter to the goings on of Second Life.

  • THE U.S. CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION has a spot in SL and held a health fair to educate residents last fall. The government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also has an impressive presence.

  • The AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY held a 24-hour walkathon in-world in 2006, raising $40,000 and attracting more than 1,000 participants.

  • THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, DAVIS, operates a Virtual Hallucinations facility in Second Life. The simulation is based on what schizophrenia patients say they experience and can be viewed by medical students, family of patients, or others to better understand the disease.

  • MARK WARNER, a former governor of Virginia and a possible Democratic candidate for president in 2008, last August became the first politician to give an interview in Second Life.

Today's employees might find the concept of meeting in a virtual world a bit off-putting, but you can be sure that tomorrow's workers will be well-versed in immersive environments — even those who aren't hooked into World of Warcraft and other high-profile online games.

Consider the little Webkinz stuffed animals flying off the shelves this Christmas. Kids register their real-life toy online and are given a virtual “pet” that matches it, as well a cyber home to keep it in and Webkinz cash to buy things to personalize and expand the home. They can earn more money by playing games. Friends' virtual pets can visit, and a chat program is built in so friends communicate online.

Other, education-focused examples of multi-user virtual worlds for kids include Whyville ( www.whyville.net) by Numedeon Inc., population 1.99 million; Quest Atlantis, developed by Indiana University's Center for Research on Learning & Technology ( atlantis.crlt.indiana.edu/start); and Harvard Graduate School of Education's River City Project ( muve.gse.harvard.edu/rivercityproject/). In the Harvard world, middle and high school science students work together in a multi-user virtual world that simulates an imaginary late 1800s town called River City, where the population is becoming ill. Students take on the role of in-world scientists, gathering data, conducting experiments, and drawing conclusions. In spring 2006, approximately 60 teachers in North America and Australia worked with almost 4,000 students on River City