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A Second Life for Big Business

Technology companies are building virtual headquarters in the video game Second Life to win customers and keep employees happy.
January 5, 2007

Second Life, the online video game in which players lead another life, is attracting big business. Technology companies like IBM and Cisco Systems are investing time and money to create an environment for their employees and potential customers.

IBM and Cisco Systems have purchased islands in the video game Second Life (shown above) so that consumers have another way to ask questions and employees can share ideas.

With 1.6 million players from all over the world, Second Life represents a sizable target audience of tech-savvy individuals. The game has been around for four years, enticing players with a three-dimensional online universe that mimics real life in many ways. Players get virtual jobs to earn credit so they can buy things like new clothes and furniture. There are a lot of small, virtual businesses in Second Life. But it’s only recently that major corporations have taken notice of the marketing and training opportunities provided by this virtual world.

IBM, for example, recently purchased ten islands on Second Life. “Of course, we hope to attract early adopters,” says Ian Hughes, the so-called IBM metaverse evangelist who first suggested that the company buy property in Second Life. “But mostly, these islands are for fellow IBM employees.”

Hughes says that IBM, with its worldwide operations, needs a chat medium with which employees can confer with one another. While instant-messaging programs and video conferencing have been available for many years, Hughes says the creative freedom offered by Second Life has not. Software programmers often go into the Second Life world and outline their projects in a three-dimensional format. Some of the programmers’ work is done in their private Second Life facilities, but much of it is open to the public. Ultimately, IBM hopes to lower programmers’ travel expenses by conducting meetings and training sessions at the Second Life islands.

Second Life is also a great way for employees to socialize. “It’s like what golf used to be,” says Hughes.

Most of the IBM islands were built by company employees, although some work was contracted to prominent Second Life architects like Aimee Weber, who has received hundreds of thousands of real-world dollars for her virtual creations.

IBM also teamed up with Circuit City to create a virtual store, where residents can look at products in a three-dimensional space. Clicking on the product will send people to Circuit City’s website to purchase it. The store is usually manned by one or two customer-service representatives, who can answer questions about IBM products.

Cisco Systems also purchased islands from Second Life and developed them for employee and consumer use. The islands consist of several spaces, including an amphitheater and a scaled replica of Cisco Field. Cisco also offers classes at the University of Second Learning that are available to the public.

The main goal of Cisco’s Second Life initiative is to provide an online forum where customers can ask Cisco’s experts questions regarding products and also receive technical support from trained specialists. According to Christian Renaud, senior manager of business development, the company plans on engaging the Second Life community as well as the real-life customers who might come to Second Life for a more visual form of technical support. Cisco intends to have employees, including technical-support staff, man the Second Life islands as part of their everyday routine, says Renaud.

The residents of Second Life have given Linden Lab, the developers of the Second Life online community, mixed reviews regarding the corporate involvement, according to Linden Labs’ marketing director, Glenn Fisher. Fisher says that the corporations are treated like any other landowner in Second Life: IBM and Cisco bought each island for roughly $1,600 and have to pay monthly maintenance fees. Some of the residents are worried that Second Life will become too commercial if lots of companies invest in its property.

Although Second Life doesn’t wish to invite corporations into the world, Renaud says that Cisco would like to form a council with other corporations in Second Life to discuss security concerns with Linden Labs.

Fisher believes that Second Life will eventually find a balance between corporate and public interests, just like the Internet. “Anyone can enter and create content in Second Life,” he says.

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