When Second Life first appeared on the web in 2003 I never got into it in a big way because it appeared to me to be more distraction than useful. My work with the disabled soon made me aware of the potential of virtual reality as a means by which those with immobility impairment could walk or even fly using this technology.

But it was a remark by Dr. Cheryl Shavers, former Undersecretary of Technology and senior advisor to the Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton Administration, at a speech she gave in Toronto last week that got me thinking about avatars, virtual reality and enterprise once again.

Dr. Shavers had said no one knows what you look like in a virtual reality environment. They measure you by your communication and your intelligence, not by the color of your skin, or the shape of your eyes. Dr. Shavers, an African-American woman, saw in Second Life a means to eliminate race from the conversation of business.

Second Life has its share of boosters and detractors. The latter see the use of avatars and virtual reality as a distraction from doing “real” business. The former see this type of immersive workspace as an important tool for:

  1. workforce training
  2. recruitment
  3. prototyping
  4. employee engagement

What companies are using immersive workspaces? The ranks include Cisco, EMC, IBM, Intel, KUMC, The Michelin Group, Microsoft, The National Security Agency, TMP Worldwide, University of Kansas, The World Bank, to name a few. And how are they using avatars and simulated workspaces? Here are a few real-world examples.

Training Using Avatars

The Michelin Group and The University of Kansas Medical Center are two companies who have employed AHG, a virtual world training company, to help them with training using Second Life. Michelin provides training to its IT staff including developers, architects, infrastructure, security and systems integrators.

Alex Heiphetz, CEO of AHG, and Gary Woodill, Director at Brandon Hall Research, have co-authored “Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds,” a book that provides several case examples of immersive workspace simulations.

Woodill describes how University of Kansas Medical Center is using Second Life. He states,“the University started using Second Life simulations to train real-life physical therapists and surgical nurses. Simulations consist of dozens of major steps with numerous decision points, that in turn, can branch into additional sub-procedures based on learner actions. They help students learn complex procedural steps in a safe and controlled learning space.”

Recruiting in Second Life

In February 2009, Lori Weltmann, Manager of Recruitment Services, at the National Security Agency of the United States, was instrumental in organizing its first virtual career fair in Second Life. Inspired by witnessing others trying Second Life, the NSA event proved highly successful leading to many job interviews and several hires.

Weltmann states that the Second Life event attracted over 8,000 registrants with 5,000 actual attendees, “a 64% return rate, well above the 50% average for previous live recruitment fairs run by the organization.”

Prototyping for Energy Savings

IBM launched “Project Big Green” to deal with what it describes as being a data center energy crisis in the 8 million square feet of space it manages for itself and on behalf of clients around the world. The project features a 3D data center in Second Life that acts as a simulator for testing IBM technology and infrastructure solutions. Many of IBM's data centers have reached full capacity limiting the company's ability to grow. With an investment in the project of over $1 billion per year, IBM hopes to cut energy consumption by 50%, doubling the capacity of its centers within 3 years without increasing its carbon footprint.

Collaboration and Employee Engagement

Dr. Mitzi Montoya, Zelnak Professor of Marketing Innovation at North Carolina State University, and Dr. Anne Massey, Dean's Research Professor of Information Systems, Indiana University, are leading researchers in computer-based virtual environments. They study the state of awareness, immersion, and absorption in collaborative virtual experiences.

In a recent interview Montoya described her first impressions of virtual environments. “I can frankly tell you that the first time I ever saw a virtual world, I thought it was the stupidest thing that I had ever seen.” But Montoya quickly recognized that the virtual environment had an affinity with the video game world of her two sons, ages 15 and 11. “This is their world and this is their environment,” she states.

In discussing their research Montoya and Massey have exposed teams to suites of Web 2.0 tools for them to choose in doing collaborative projects. “The best performing teams all gravitate toward virtual world technologies for the social relational piece of teamwork, and that is important for their performance. For teams that don't do that they have lower performance,” states Dr. Montoya.

In the virtual environment of an immersive workspace avatars replace real flesh and bone. No one is measured by the color of their skin or hair, or by whether they are in a wheelchair or not. Instead the measure of a person through their avatar is in their contribution to completing the project, their ideas, and the gray matter between their ears.

Is Second Life Alone in the Immersive Workspace World?

By no means is Second Life the only product available for organizations looking to experiment in a virtual 3D environment. A quick look across the Internet yielded the following products:

  • Multiverse is a 3D virtual world for online gaming and social networking. Virtual Times Square is a true-to-life digital recreation of New York's famous locale. Anyone can join and immerse themselves in video streams and detailed realism of this virtual New York landmark.
  • Open Wonderland is an open source toolkit for creating 3D virtual worlds. Originally developed by Sun Microsystems as Project Wonderland, this 3D collaborative virtual environment has received input from over 1,000 development teams and 400 companies and institutions.
  • ProtoSphere is a product of ProtonMedia. It is described as a dedicated collaborative 3D meeting environment. The company includes AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, BP, and Chevron among its clients.
  • vPresence technology is a product of TelePlace, a developer of immersive 3D tools. The software is used for communication and collaboration in Intel, Hewlett-Packard, BP, FXPal, and at Stanford University.
  • VastPark is a virtual world being used by a number of government, healthcare organizations and universities.

Is your organization using virtual reality or immersive workspaces? If so, tell us about in the comments.