The Death of Distance

Second Life, Openism, Blue Mars, 3D Explorer.  If these mean nothing to you today, they certainly will in future.  They are all example of Virtual Worlds and this evening in Manchester I had the job of Chairing a really interesting mixed reality debate called The Death of Distance.  Around 800M people alredy have virtual world accounts, around 2/3 of these are under 16.  Before you roll your eyes and tut and say “it’s not for business”, give me a minute to explain.

So, firstly picture the scene.   Room with about 40 people in it and projector.  On screen, a virtual world, designed by the clever folk from Corporation Pop.  A specially designed virtual world avatar of me (which looked slimmer and younger with no bags under the eyes – yippee), avatars of four other people attending virtually (x1 in Australia, x2 in America, x1 in London), two people piped in via video conference on a screen in the virtual world, a laptop running Twitter with the event hashtag #DofD.  Got your head round that?

The central theme of the discussion was to examine the role of distance in a world which seems to be getting smaller, due to digital technology and the role that virtual worlds can play.  Topics we probed and talked about included the return on investment, how to overcome global cultural barriers, how to establish authenticity and trust and how to break convention.  I cited videoconferencing as one of things that is in the same league as the paperless office, it’s talked about a lot, yet global paper production continues to grow, in the same way that videoconferencing never really became mainstream.   The recent Icelandic volcano might give us the wake up call we need on this stuff.  An estimated 7M people were stranded globally when planes were grounded, so will this change our behavior?

According to Gartner, they estimated that 70% of businesses would be using some sort of virtual world application by 2012.  The panel disagreed.  There seems to be a lot of barriers to entry right now, mostly technical.  I.T. departments want a policy for everything, opening up network bandwidth is a real issue.  Yet, so much can be gained.  We heard from IBM and BP about the tremendous cost savings they implemented by switching conferences from real world to virtual world, up to 75% reduction in costs, yet similar outputs.  The figures speak for themselves.  This does however take, time, resources and senior management buy in!  Big companies have these.

We also heard from some smaller businesses who had really embraced video-conferencing.  They cited “triple-shifts,” sometimes also knows as “chasing the sun,” where they baton passed projects from time zone to time zone to give them competitive advantage.  Linden labs cited the “war for talent” and that businesses need to embrace new things to attract the brightest stars of the future, I have to agree, this is something businesses can’t ignore.  Linden already have over 1400 business globally using virtual worlds to give you some perspective.

It’s great to see Manchester pushing the boundaries of communication technology.  I enjoyed chairing it as I’d never experienced such a multi-layered discussion before, it challenged me and gave me a new experience to learn from.  I can now really see how virtual worlds could be used in business, I had an open mind before the event, however was struggling to see the exact application.  Collaboration is the name of the game, linking up disparate people to maximum effect.  Before you all cut up your airmiles cards, my final thought is this, human interactions are still key.  Some relationships are developed in a bar or restaurant at night, when the work of the day is done, particularly in far eastern cultures where it can take more time to cultivate relationships.  The Western world is more open to social networks, meeting people on-line and doing things quickly.

So, like anything it’s a balance.  Humans still need to meet, it’s just the frequency may change and we may use different platforms to collaborate.  As a result of this little project, I discovered Basecamp where all the prep was done virtually, I’m already using it for other things, it solves a problem.  With a dispersed global workforce, I can see why IBM and BP use virtual worlds, it may take a little longer for other businesses to catch up.  To give you some flavour of what IBM achieved with Linden Lab, have a read of this case study.  Distance may not be dead yet, however it is certainly starting to sound poorly.'
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