Why virtual worlds suck for business — and some solutions

Wagner Au and Gwyneth Llewelyn have recently posted thought-provoking pieces about how to make virtual worlds more engaging. Au proposed an achievement system to encourage new users to make friends and visit new locations.

“Turning social networking more competitive resulted in people getting more engaged with it,” added Llewelyn, explaining that achievement systems and rewards are common everywhere.

Current Second Life users have a stake in making Second Life more popular, in expanding the user base. Those who are in-world merchants get more customers, the socializers and game players get more people to interact with. Parent company Linden Lab gets more users, which will make it more profitable — and likely to last longer.

But it’s not just virtual community platforms and game designers who care about making virtual worlds more immersive.

Companies and educational institutions using virtual worlds to cut costs and improve learning and collaboration also have a stake in helping their end users get more engaged with the platform. And, of course, so do virtual world vendors.

In order to become more attractive to business and educators, virtual worlds need to incorporate more gaming elements, not fewer, into their platforms — those elements, like achievement systems and ratings, that make the platforms more engaging and immersive.

A virtual meeting in OpenSim. (Image by Hypergrid Business.)

3D Chatroom with Bad Graphics

I can’t track down the reference now, but Second Life has been described as a “3D chatroom with bad graphics.” But this statement applies to many, if not all, of enterprise-quality virtual worlds. At least, when you first enter them.

For example, I’ve recently had tours of Teleplace and ProtoSphere, two successful enterprise-class virtual world platforms. Company executives showed me around and answered my questions.

Although I like seeing the built-in collaboration features, and I know from personal experience what value the virtual worlds offer, these particular tours and others like them left me uninspired. I imagine that experience is being repeated in offices around the country, as vendors try to sell virtual worlds to potential customers, and as virtual world proponents try to sell the platforms to their bosses and colleagues.

Here’s a typical tour:

You spend several minutes (at least!) loading up the software, finding your microphone, adjusting your sound levels, and logging into to a virtual scene. If you’re lucky, you have a choice of default avatars, none of whom look anything like you. If you’re unlucky, you show up as a big plastic Gumby-like thing or as an ugly woman in orange tights (known as “Ruth” in OpenSim and Second Life).

You already feel stupid, and then your hosts show up, also as cartoon characters. You can’t make eye contact with them, you can’t read their body language — if they’re animated at all, it’s usually jerky and inappropriate to the situation. Occasionally you’ll get the tour from someone in a funky costume, or a cross-dresser, or a robot. Even when they’re dressed in business clothing, the clothes are often too tight, too sexy or otherwise “off.” You try to follow them around as they lead your through the environment.

Walking takes a while to get used to — for some reason, every platform has to do it differently. Some use the arrow keys. Some use the mouse. You may or may not have control over your camera. You bump into things and get stuck in corners and behind furniture. It’s a pain in the butt. It would all be worth if if there was something interesting to see when you arrive… but all you get is a screen hanging on a wall.

The tour guide explains that you can put anything on this screen. You can put video. You can put a webpage. You can share a desktop (with some of the enterprise platforms). But you already own a screen you can put anything on. It’s your computer screen. And it already does all of those things.

The tour usually concludes with you learning how to sit in a chair.

“You can do all of this over the telephone and a slide presentation,” you might tell them. “Faster, cheaper, easier.”

And they’ll usually respond: “Yes, but this is an immersive, collaborative, environment.”

But you can’t tell that from the tour.

For most people, the first few minutes — even the first few hours — in a new virtual world isn’t very immersive at all. You’re paying attention to what your tour guides say, and you might pay attention to the slides they throw up on the walls of the virtual environment, but you pretty quickly stop paying attention to the avatars and the 3D aspects of the world because there’s no point to it. The environments are bland. The clothes are bland. All virtual conference rooms look the same, anyway. And there’s nothing to do there, except walk around and look at screens.

You are not immersed.

And if you’re not immersed, than the virtual environment is, in fact, nothing more than a chat room with bad 3D graphics.

Here are some ways to make virtual environment more immersive.

You are your avatar

The latest research coming out of the universities shows that we identify with avatars who look like us, to the extent that we change the way we behave, and interact with the world. Those of us with taller avatars act more aggressively in negotiations — and continue to do so afterward, in real life.  Watching our avatars work out inspires us to exercise more in real life.  If you have an attractive avatar you’ll be more outgoing in the virtual world — and this will carry over into the real world as well.

For this effect to kick in, we have to feel a degree of ownership of the avatar. It doesn’t have to look exactly like us, but one that is too alien will feel as if you’re planing a stock character in a video game — it’s not really you.

I don’t feel like myself when getting tours of vendors’ virtual worlds. In fact, I haven’t even felt like myself in Second Life until recently, when I got a better hairstyle for my avatar, and changed clothes.

If you’re trying to sell a virtual world to your boss, or your employee, or a potential customer, there’s a few things you can do to make them identify more with their avatar.

Customizing the avatar can help, but most people don’t have time to play with their appearance before going into a meeting. One solution would be to get a photograph of the visitor ahead of time, and create an avatar that vaguely resembles them, then stock their virtual inventory with clothes that they might wear, and help them pick out an outfit when they first log in.

In Second Life and OpenSim environment, you could also do a quick side trip to a small freebie store set up by the vendor and outfitted with business presentation equipment, PowerPoint projectors — and new clothes. The point would be to show the visitor how easy it is to get and use new tools, but the bigger benefit would be to make them feel more present, more immersed, in their avatar.

Good content is immersive

You get caught up in a good book or an exciting movie. You don’t notice time passing. You feel that you are there, in the world created by the writer or the director.

But there are a some business meetings that aren’t so engrossing. Where you feel the passage of every minute. Painfully.

Meeting organizers combat this in two different ways. One is to have meetings that are actually exciting — where important issues are discussed, with real consequences, and everyone’s input matters. But if the meeting can’t be exciting in content, it can be exciting in form — with funny jokes, or a contest for the last donut, or an off-site location with those stupid trust-building games.

Virtual environments actually pose a lot of opportunities for excitement, even if the content of the presentation itself is pretty ho-hum. If the visitor has identified with their avatar, then they will feel a burst of adrenalin if they, say, almost fall off a roof. They may feel nervous crossing a rope bridge over a high chasm. They may be startled if a fountain suddenly comes on and splashes them with water. They may feel emotional if they suddenly look out over a beautiful sunrise or sunset.

If they’re immersed in their avatar, they will feel these experiences to a lesser degree than in real life, but they will still feel them. And, as a result of the shared experience, they will develop a sense of connection and camaraderie with their virtual world host — and the sense of the virtual environment as a real place.

If helps if there’s nothing to break the illusion of reality. If there’s an editing mistake in a book or movie you may suddenly find yourself snapping out of its world, annoyed by the interruption.

In virtual worlds, navigation can be similarly jarring. It helps if plants and other landscaping materials are phantom, so you don’t get caught in the branches, and there are transparent ramps or guiderails to help you up curbs and stairs and around corners.

Teleportation can be jarring and disruptive for those not used to it, as can flying. Alternatives include putting the tour locations close by, so the visitors can walk from one location to another, or to use a trolley, an elevator, or another mechanism to take them from place to place. When a visitor does something in the virtual world that they can’t do in real life, they get a reminder that they’re not “really” there, they’re watching a video game.

One common interruption is when you sit in a chair — you’re often magically teleported into your sitting position, instead of walking over and sitting down. We might get used to it, the way we get used to scene changes in movies. But if you’re showing someone around who is absolutely and utterly new to virtual worlds, you might want to avoid having them sit down in chairs at first.

A similarly jarring effect is when you click on a screen and your point of view automatically shifts so that it’s centered right in front of the screen. This is handy for when you want to see a slide clearly during a presentation, but it also disrupts the illusion that you’re really present in the virtual world.

Interactivity is rewarding

We like rewards. We like praise and attention. Video game designers know this, and offer players many opportunities to get points, earn gold coins, level up, or fight — and win — against their enemies. Social networking sites reward users with new friends and followers, with other people “liking” their posts.

Casinos are also experts at designing environments that suck players in. They use their powers for evil. But that doesn’t mean that companies shouldn’t be using those same techniques for good causes — to train employees, to improve teamwork, to increase creativity.

Something as simple as a virtual donut could be a reward — and a calorie-free one, at that. Eating the virtual donut won’t make you feel full, but if you are immersed, present in your avatar, it will increase your sense of self-satisfaction and well-being. Or, if you’re on a diet, it could make you feel that you’re getting away with something!

Watering a virtual plant and watching it grow can be immensely satisfying, as millions of FarmVille players can attest.

Employees working in virtual environments can also be rewarded with larger or fancier offices, or better views — at no additional cost to their employers. In a virtual world, a desk made of gold costs the same as a desk made of plywood. However, a tank full of realistic fish can require a bit more server capacity to accurately emulate fish behavior.

Even in a short demo, there can be opportunities for the visitor to engage with and interact with the world. It could be a simple memory game, matching the photos of company employees — or key clients — to their names.

It could be a three-dimensional budget simulation, where raising the budget for one department pushes all the other budget lines down. Even a fishing simulation, to catch the fish in the company’s pond, can be captivating and engrossing, as can a game of virtual pickup basketball in the company’s virtual gym.

With the right activities, your visitor will be disappointed when the tour is finally over, instead of anxious for it to end. They will feel warm and fuzzy, instead of bored and cynical. (Okay, some people will always feel bored and cynical — there are no guarantees.)

And your visitor might feel inspired to sneak back in afterward, to finish the game, or finish putting together their outfit, or watering their plants and feeding their fish.

Creativity is engaging

Plenty of people surf the Internet. But they get really sucked in when they start interacting with it. When they post on Twitter or Facebook, comment on a forum, write a blog, rate a photograph, or add a caption to a funny cat photograph.

The virtual worlds offer unlimited opportunities for creativity. However, many enterprise platforms seem to veer towards sterile, professionally-designed environments instead. I haven’t yet been on a tour where the vendor took me to their personal office, with photos of their kids on their desk. Yes, a formal meeting room is more elegant, but I personally would be more impressed if they had to take a stack of virtual papers off a virtual chair before I could sit down.

Let employees decorate their spaces. They will feel more engaged, more immersed. They will feel ownership of the virtual environment.

When giving the tour, take your visitor to some personal locations, where the personality of the occupant comes through. If there’s someone actually there, working at their virtual desk — or chitchatting over the virtual water cooler — even better.

Companies will need to have policies in place to allow employees to take personal content with them when they leave the company, however. This is simple in the OpenSim/Second Life universe, but more difficult in the proprietary worlds, where content can’t be moved from one grid to another.

Decorating offices is also difficult in virtual worlds where all content has to be designed by professionals. One way to address this would be to offer content — furniture, picture frames, plants — that can be customized by the end user. For example, allowing users to change the color of their chairs or drapes, or upload a photo into a picture frame. In OpenSim, with hypergrid-enabled grids, employees can also travel via hypergrid to other worlds to go shopping, or to visit freebie stores.  Our Hyperica directory of hypergrid destinations currently lists more than 100 hypergrid-accessible shopping destinations, and this number is growing daily.

Shopping allows a user to completely customize their working environment without having to learn how to build or script.

Closed virtual worlds suffer greatly in this respect.

Users of OpenSim and Second Life Enterprise, even when run in closed, behind-the-firewall mode, can upload ready-made content from thousands of different designers.

Most enterprise-class proprietary worlds, however, don’t have access to diverse and compelling third-party content. If OpenSim and Second Life begin supporting mesh imports we might see designers flock to the Collada mesh standard, and create content that can also be used in the proprietary worlds as well. Until then, users of proprietary worlds are limited to what’s provided by the proprietary world vendors, and what’s available in Google’s free 3D Warehouse, and what they they pay designers to create specifically for them.

Vendors can try to address this by creating stores with basic content for end users to browse through, by opening up their platforms to third-party content providers, or by making their worlds interoperable with other platforms.

Why bother?

It’s not easy to create compelling, engaging content that draws in visitors and engages them and makes them feel immersed. It’s a lot of work, and it requires a fair of bit of creativity.

But it’s definitely worth it.

Having had a virtual office for close to a year now, I can definitely say that virtual environment help bridge the big gap between face-to-face interaction and telecommunications such as telephone, email, and fax. We are wired to need human contact. Isolation cells are one of the worst punishments you can get while in prison.

Yes, there are a few of us who prefer to work completely alone — but we’re usually stuck with bosses and co-workers who don’t, and require our presence.

Virtual worlds aren’t as good as actual human contact. The facial expressions aren’t there. Neither is body language, though both may come in the future.

We don’t see or hear as well in virtual worlds as in real life, though that is also changing. We can’t taste, or touch. We can’t smell — but that can be a good thing, depending on the hygiene of your co-workers.

But with sufficient immersion, virtual worlds can create the illusion that you are standing in the same room as someone else, that you are interacting with them, that you are sharing the same experience.

I have a business partner in Belgium, for example. We both used to be based in Shanghai, and met regularly. Now, we meet in our virtual office on our company grid. The stuff we do together is trivial — we move furniture around. We plan new landscaping. We occasionally meet with other people. All the real work of the job still gets done the way all work is done these days — by email,  and in our company’s online workflow systems. We’re slowly starting to move some of the collaborative processes into the virtual world. But even the trivia of sharing an office — who gets to have what view, where the chairs should go — is helping us stay connected on a basic human level, and helps to satisfy the need for human contact.

A round-trip business-class flight from New York to Brussels starts at around $3,000 — enough to pay for eight years of hosting of our virtual world. We’re on OpenSim, which is ridiculously cheap.

When you only communicate with someone by email, you have no way of knowing whether they’re in an office, working hard — or off on a boat, sending you filler emails from their iPhone. Did it really take them eight hours to do that report? Or did they spent two hours, and waste the rest playing FarmVille?

A virtual environment doesn’t — yet — allow you to look over an employee’s shoulder while they work. But it does allow you both be present in the same place, at the same time. That sense of the boss being nearby may be enough to inspire employees to work harder and more diligently.

After all, much work today can already be structured in such a way that it doesn’t require constant supervision. When I shared an office with my staff in Shanghai, for example, each writer was expected to produce a certain amount of work each week. The hours they kept were up to them — some preferred to write at night, at home, without workplace interruptions, for example. Others needed to work late and come in to work late because they had to call sources in Europe and the U.S.

I felt more comfortable with them, however, if I saw them occasionally during the day.

Virtual working environments could allow companies to combine the flex-time schedules that many are already moving towards with the psychological comfort of regular meetings, both formal and informal. The result? Fewer and smaller centralized offices, more telecommuting and remote offices, lower facilities budgets, lower travel budgets, and shorter commutes for staff, better work-life balance, and higher retention.

If a company is able to create a successful, engaging and immersive virtual workplace for its employees and managers, it will also be able to recruit from a wider pool of potential workers — those who live in remote locations, who have to care for family members, who suffer from handicaps, who have family or other commitments that don’t allow them to move, or who don’t want to come into an office for any of thousands of other reasons.

Maria Korolov