Planning for a virtual future

There are few things worse than making a large investment in technology only to find out a couple of years later that the rest of the world has decided to go in a different direction. Not only do you now have to put in the time and money to rip everything out and replace it, but you might also wind up lagging behind the folks who guessed right.

Enterprise-focused virtual worlds are currently in a state of considerable flux. New vendors appear, and old vendors vanish leaving their customers in a lurch. Meanwhile, virtual world platforms promise to cut meeting and training costs and create new opportunities for collaboration, but many of the same benefits can be achieved by non-immersive, Web-based virtual meeting tools instead.

Companies that wait too long to jump on the bandwagon might lose opportunities to develop new lines of business, miss out on a chance to cut costs from their travel budgets, or fall behind in know-how and lose staff or customers to more with-it competitors.

Most companies are likely to opt for a middle-of-the road approach, conducting small pilot projects with a variety of technologies, and investing in those that show both a clear business benefit and widespread industry adoption. A few will bet big on one platform in order to gain a head start on their competitors.

A larger group of firms will lag behind, waiting to see a clear industry consensus on platforms, and clear business benefits before investing in immersive platforms.

Whichever your approach your company decides to take, keep the following trends in mind before you commit to a new technology.

CLOUDS, NOT HARDWARE

Buying hardware and running software on-premises offers better control, faster connections, and, often, lower overall costs. However, there is often a high up-front investment cost, and a higher chance of being locked into a particular technology. In addition, companies have to have technical talent on site to manage the service.

In the past, almost all software ran on-premises on company-owned servers. Over the past few years, however, more and more processes have moved to external providers. The latest incarnation, cloud computing, relieves a company of the up-front costs of buying server hardware and the need to handle their own maintenance and upgrades.

With hardware costs dropping dramatically every year, a large investment in technology will be obsolete quickly — it makes more sense to offload this responsibility on a cloud vendor, who will buy hardware in large quantities at a discount.

As bandwidth speeds improve and cloud providers expand their management tools, clouds will become increasingly competitive with on-premises deployment of software. In addition, employees increasingly work remotely, and access company systems over virtual networks. Here, cloud delivery is actually an advantage.

Many services, such as Web hosting, email, customer relationship management platforms (like Salesforce.com) and many other business functions are already moving into a cloud-based delivery model.

In summary, on-premises software is a great solution for yesterday’s business environment, an okay solution for today’s business environment, and, if existing trends continue, a bad option for the future.

Any enterprise-focused virtual world can be run off-premises, hosted either by the vendor providing the virtual world software, or by a third-party hosting provider. Monthly costs and setup costs vary by provider. Some providers charge by the number of servers, some by the number of users, and others by the number of regions (the land area) of the virtual world.

With off-premises hosting, a company does give up some degree of control over the virtual world, but many providers are offering access controls, backups, and self-management tools that exceed what a company would be able to have on its own.

Over time, the capabilities of the vendors will improve as their continue to leverage their investments and develop in-house staff specializing in this technology.

Companies can avoid the expense and hassle of developing this expertise in-house, except for those few cases in which the virtual worlds offer a key competitive advantage.

OWN YOUR CONTENT

Many virtual world platforms allow companies to make backup copies of individual objects or entire builds, and to move those builds or objects to other platforms.

Some vendors, including ProtonMedia and Teleplace, allow companies to place their own images or three-dimensional objects into a virtual world, but use a proprietary methodology for the entire space that prevents the build as a whole from being moved from one vendor to another.

The proprietary platform often allows a high degree of functionality and back-end integration, but at the cost of vendor lock-in.

Ideally, a company should be able to export the terrain of its virtual world, all the objects, images and other files in the world, and all the behaviors of those objects (usually in the form of scripts). This world export should then be capable of being moved into another vendor’s environment or onto another platform.

For example, on the Web, a company can normally download its entire Website, including server-side applications, and move it to another hosting provider or hire a new set of programmers and designers without losing access to any content. Some companies, however, have opted for proprietary content management systems that may, initially, offer better functionality than competitors — but quickly grow stale. At that point, moving to a new platform often requires a costly and time-consuming top-to-bottom redesign of the site and its functionality, combined with migration tools to move the content itself.

In general, the more companies rely on industry standard platforms the easier it is to migrate both content and functionality to other vendors or to other platforms.

In the virtual world arena, the only platform I’m currently aware of that allows full export of region files is OpenSim and its derivatives. Open Wonderland and most commercial platform allow import of objects designed using standard 3D modeling programs — and then allow those objects to be moved and rearranged from inside the world — but do not allow the export of the entire composed world.

So, for example, Coca-Cola and other companies and individuals that created virtual environments inside There.com lost all their work when the platform was shut down. Users took photographs and recorded videos to remember their builds by, but were not able to export them to other platforms.

OWN YOUR COMMUNITY

The bigger problem for Coca-Cola, however, wasn’t the loss of the build. After all, the company still retained the underlying graphics and 3D models, and could probably recreate the entire build, with a little work, in a new platform.

Coca-Cola did lose access to its in-world community, however, which scattered to other worlds when There.com closed.

The company could have avoided both of these problems if it had been running its own virtual world, or using an enterprise-class software platform hosted by a third party vendor. With licensed software, even if the vendors goes out of business, the user can still continue to run the software, though without support or upgrades. It can then migrate to another platform on its own schedule.

However, there are some benefits to having a presence in a large, public world like There.com or Second Life, even though the builds aren’t exportable. Large public worlds offer easy access to individuals already familiar with the virtual platform, and looking for engaging ways to interact with businesses. This is similar to having a page on Facebook or Twitter — you go where the customers are.

However, at the end of the day, you can’t rely on the outside vendor to manage your customer relationships. Facebook, Twitter, Second Life, and There.com are intermediaries that get in the way between a company and its community of customers, users, and employees. By giving up control of these key relationships, you also give up control over who gets to be in your community, and you give up your ability to contact them when they’re not using that platform, or that platform ceases to exist.

One option is to use a marketing presence in a virtual world — or on Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace — to funnel people to your company’s private world or Website. There, you can collect your visitors’ contact information — possibly in exchange for content, support, games, or other services.

This is particularly important for communities composed of company employees and alumni. If a public world such as Second Life or There.com is used for company functions, and employees create personal avatars in order to attend these functions, then the employees will retain their avatars — and, possibly, access to company content, events, and relationships — even after they have ceased being employees.

In virtual worlds owned by the company, user accounts can be centrally administered, similar to the way that email addresses are handled, and departed employees locked out of their company avatars, or reclassified into alumni groups.

maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.

  • Maria,

    With Open Wonderland, you can save a "snapshot" of your virtual world. This snapshot is stored in the form of an XML file and can be moved to any other Wonderland server. If someone wanted to, they could write a loader for the XML and import the contents into some other program. In addition, because you use standard 3D modeling tools to create 3D content for Open Wonderland, that content is completely re-usable in other contexts.

    Nicole.