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Adapting Virtual Worlds for Business

Businesses need to resolve questions of immersion, integration, and fun.
April 4, 2008

At the Virtual Worlds Conference 2008 in New York City, I see a lot of interest in using virtual worlds for more than just games. Yesterday, for example, Linden Lab and IBM announced that IBM is now hosting the Second Life Grid–a virtual-world platform based on Second Life–behind its firewall. The grid allows businesses to build their own virtual worlds using the foundations that have already been created for Second Life. Hosting the grid behind the firewall greatly improves security, making Second Life a much more attractive place to hold meetings involving sensitive corporate information or to build protected prototypes. At the same time, avatars can travel easily from IBM’s secure grid to the larger, public version of Second Life.

Ginsu Yoon, Linden Lab’s vice president for business affairs, says that protecting the grid required careful structuring of servers. “The easy part is putting it behind the firewall, and the hard part is making it connect to the larger world,” says Yoon. Servers can host corporate data securely, he says, but software also has to watch avatars to make sure they don’t carry protected data out into the public space. IBM and Linden Lab worked together to find a way to host the grid that measured up to IBM’s standards for corporate security.

This is the latest of IBM’s many forays into virtual space. In addition to the company’s existing presence in Second Life–both in public and on a private island–IBM is conducting virtual-world experiments using Forterra, Qwaq, and its own internally built Metaverse. So far, these efforts are young and uncertain. While the company is actively researching ways to use virtual worlds in conjunction with business software, canvassing its own massive base of employees for information about the needs of today’s corporations, it’s still not clear what will come of its efforts.

I think that this is largely because many businesspeople don’t yet see a need for virtual worlds. They feel that, while they do need to deal with colleagues remotely, 2-D tools such as Web-conferencing software and instant messaging do well enough.

Tools like instant messaging and social-networking sites have become common in businesses in part because of their deep connection to people’s personal lives. People who are used to keeping track of friends on Facebook are likely to also keep track of business contacts in LinkedIn, or even Facebook itself. The IBM Lotus development group, with its Connections software, has worked to create secure social-networking sites that can run behind a firewall and serve as a medium for confidential corporate communications. I see IBM’s research in virtual worlds as a similar phenomenon: the company is hunting for a way to catch hold of a popular phenomenon and adapt it for business.

As things currently stand, however, I see a few obstacles in the way:

Immersion is both a blessing and a curse for virtual worlds. Remy Malan, vice president of enterprise for Qwaq, talked with me here about how compelling 3-D is for people. We talked about how people can learn their way around a real-world location without setting foot in it, just by navigating it in 3-D. However, immersion has a drawback, in my view. The tools that work best for many people in business are those that allow rapid switching. For example, as I write an article, I may flip between an instant-messaging conversation with my editor, the program in which I’m writing the article, my Web browser, and my e-mail client. An immersive virtual world doesn’t allow for the same kind of multitasking.

The multitasking problem I just mentioned could be solved if word processing, e-mail, and other business tools were integrated into virtual worlds, the way instant messaging has been in most of them. This would mean effectively replacing a 2-D operating system with a 3-D, graphics-intensive operating system. Companies have moved in this direction already. Qwaq allows everything from documents to Web pages to be imported into a virtual meeting space, where they can remain for all to see for the duration of a project. IBM has connected its Metaverse to some of its existing business software, such as its Sametime instant messenger. The benefit here is that the integrated environment provides a persistent home for a project, which can be especially nice if people from many states or countries are working together. However, I’m not sure that this outweighs the significant drawbacks of going 3-D. The environment is hard for new users to navigate, requires heavy computer resources, and hogs bandwidth.

Fun is another blessing and curse for virtual worlds. Companies that specialize in virtual worlds for enterprise tend not to stress fun very much. I think that this is because they’re working to avoid being labeled as purveyors of toys rather than tools. However, if we do need virtual worlds in business, it may be precisely because of fun. In their consumer incarnations, virtual worlds have an incredible ability to suck some users in. I have stayed up until 2:00 a.m. harvesting materials in a virtual world–which I can tell you feels suspiciously like work–simply because I wanted to finish building a virtual object. If employers could engage employees the same way game designers can engage players, exciting yet frightening possibilities open up. However, not only is this a delicate issue for many reasons, but it’s unclear that virtual worlds will have the same effect when used for professional work rather than gaming.

I started this post by talking about how companies are addressing questions of the security of virtual worlds. Answers to those questions are clearly required before businesses can rely very much on virtual worlds. I’m confident that security won’t remain a barrier. However, I think that the questions of immersion, integration, and fun will remain thorny issues for some time to come.

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