Over the past year, Intel employees from Singapore, Israel, and the U.S. have convened via high-level computerized conferences, collaborating on such projects as product strategy and information-technology planning. But these are no ordinary online meetings. They've happened in virtual worlds, with three-dimensional graphic characters, or avatars, standing in for actual Intel (INTC) employees, making notes, holding conversations, and solving problems.
Call it do-it-yourself virtual life. Companies across the globe have been rushing to establish a marketing beachhead in virtual worlds such as Second Life, largely to get their brands and products in front of the hard-core faithful who spend hours immersed in online role playing and other pursuits. But lately, executives from a range companies, including defense giant Raytheon (RTN), oil heavyweight BP (BP), and computer maker Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), are making a deeper push into virtual worlds, using them for a host of other tasks, such as training, private collaboration, and outreach to analysts and customers.
Stanford University's Media X project, which hires out scholars to conduct corporate research for companies including Cisco (CSCO) and Motorola (MOT), is debuting its own virtual world on Apr. 16. The space affords each client its own private conference room for meetings with Stanford scientists. "It's just an exciting way of thinking of how you can have these conversations," says Charles House, the executive director of Media X who formerly led Intel's virtual world efforts.
Using virtual technology for more than marketing is a "no brainer," says Craig Samuel, a vice-president at IT consultancy Unisys (UIS). At the typical global corporation, 20% of employees have never met their boss in person, House says. And 3D spaces offer a level of interaction that's not possible over the phone or via videoconferencing, says Sebastien Jeanjean, head of sales and marketing at France's Tixeo, a maker of corporate virtual-world software used by customers including Raytheon. "In 2D, even if you hear and see a person, you still have a feeling of being alone," Jeanjean says. "After half an hour, it's very difficult to keep people's attention."
But let users interact through avatars, and they will stay plenty engaged, the thinking goes. The software used by Intel, from Palo Alto (Calif.) startup Qwaq, uses light, music, and color cues to highlight documents under discussion. To find a file, users simply utter its name—say, "press release on global warming"—and avatars are whisked to the corresponding room. Missed a meeting? No problem. Attendees can save work, including notes and a chat transcript, for later use.
Meetings and conferences are just the beginning, say proponents. The software could help medical students collaborate on surgical procedures, for example. "Unlike technology hype of the past, adoption of this will be quite fast," says Samuel. "This is viewed as transformational. This will be the way we interact with information in the future."
It's too early to judge the effectiveness of virtual technology for businesses, and few companies are willing to share their own stories. But software vendors boast what they consider impressive gains: Tixeo says its sales have risen more than 100% every year since 2004. Multiverse, a Mountain View (Calif.) software maker, says developers are using its tools to build some 130 virtual worlds for consumers and businesses. And Qwaq is "seeing a lot of interest," says Chief Executive Greg Nuyens.