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Early virtual worlds such as ­Second Life demonstrate that highly visual, 3-D online environments hold the potential to transform the way humans interact not only with computers but with each other (see “Second Earth”). Hyped as they are, these immersive environments address two fundamental aspects of being human: our visual and social natures.

To make these platforms ­viable for business and consumer uses other than Second Life, the technology and business communities must begin collaborating now, because significant challenges lie ahead.

First, we need to develop and implement open standards that can connect virtual worlds and enable users to pass from one to the next, just as we can easily go from one Web page to another. The idea of jumping from, say, Second Life to the immersive game World of Warcraft might seem far-fetched today, but I remember how far off today’s easy Internet surfing seemed back in the early 1990s.

Since then, Web languages like HTTP and HTML have helped ignite an explosion of online content and creativity. Likewise, removing barriers between different environments will let innovations that might otherwise be limited to one world affect a much broader audience.

Second, we need to develop reliable methods of managing trust and identity in order to head off the privacy and security violations that we are likely to face in virtual worlds. Constantly evolving security threats plague the Web today and, perhaps more than any other single factor, pose barriers to e-business.

Today’s typical security infrastructure is a patchwork of disparate mechanisms and tools spanning the network, operating-system, and application levels. However well these mechanisms work individu­ally, their failure to consistently work well together creates security vulnerabili­ties. With virtual worlds, we have a chance to build security capabili­ties from the ground up and address interoperability problems before they become major weaknesses. Of course, new technologies will inevitably raise new security questions, but it will be useful for companies building virtual worlds to consider security lessons learned from the Web.

Finally, for virtual worlds to have any meaningful impact on business and government, we must leverage current business applications and data reposi­tories–whether they are Web-built, Web-enabled, or legacy systems–by integrating them into virtual worlds. This is an absolute must for the rapid dissemination and widespread adoption of virtual-world business technologies. The integration of existing applications and recently developed ones will, again, require coöperation around open standards.

As different virtual worlds and applications become more fully integrated with the current Web, we will see amazing transformations, both in the way consumers interact with companies and in the way employees inside businesses interact with each other and with outside communities.

Some of us are eager to push the boundaries of what might be possible in virtual worlds and the 3-D Internet. But before we can do so, we must partner with other businesses and societal leaders. When that happens, pervasive virtual worlds will no longer seem a distant reality.

Colin J. Parris is vice president of digital convergence in the IBM Research Group.

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Credit: John Hersey

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