Why businesses avoid going virtual

A new paper published this month in the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research listed a few reasons why business users are hesitant to embrace virtual environments:

The main reasons were:

Technical difficulties: “Due to frustrating first-hand experiences, professionals predicted that high technical requirements, slow system performance, and the inability to run the applications would be major obstacles to organizational use and value,” wrote Patrick Bateman, professor at Youngstown State University.

Technological resistance: According to the paper’s authors, the steep learning curve of virtual environments made them too complex to roll out to a large number of users.

Demographics of users: Virtual worlds are home to people involved in socializing, role playing, virtual sexual experimentation, and other activities that don’t fit well with a business culture.

Appropriateness: “Nudity, violence, sexual acts, and foul language were readily observed and, were almost inescapable,” wrote Bateman. “As a result, participants [potential business users] perceived that no matter how impressive the technology, they could never foresee businesses utilizing it.”

Game-like nature: The face that virtual environments are used predominantly for gaming means that there are many elements that could potentially be distracting for a business event.

Lack of control: This was the biggest factor, the study authors reported. In a virtual world, users are limited only by their imaginations.  “On one occasion, [one user] might be a man, on another a woman, on even another they could be a dog, dragon or combination of all four – the limit is only on the person’s creativity…If a worker is uninhibited of their use of the program, they will probably spend more time adjusting their avatar and socializing outside of the company rather than get work done,” said one engineer quoted in the study.

Hosting companies and virtual world consultants pitching virtual environments to enterprise users need to address these concerns.

Fortunately, the biggest concern — lack of control — is also the easiest to address with enterprise-friendly platforms like OpenSim, Protosphere, Venuegen, Avaya Web.alive, SAIC’s Olive, Open Qwaq, Altadyn’s 3Dxplorer, and ReactionGrid’s Jibe.

For example, a private OpenSim grid allows a company to control the content, the users, and the activities available in their world.

“Point out that lots of control can be built in, such as no flying, no building, no inventory other than what is needed for the business case, only a stock number of avatars can be chosen,” said Paul Emery, a consultant with 3dcolab, a virtual environment hosting and development firm.

When talking to business users, vendors should downplay the creative aspects of the platform, Emery told Hypergrid Business, and avoid use of terms like gamification.

Instead of saying virtual world, or 3D game, consider using terms such as business simulation, training simulation, virtual training environment, rapid prototyping, collaborative 3D design environment, scenario modeling, and virtual product demonstration.

The technical challenges are the hardest to overcome. Vendors are working to make it easier for end users to enter and use a virtual world, such as what Kitely is doing with its plugin and Web-based entry points. Many OpenSim hosting companies, such as Dreamland Metaverse, will also set up a grid so that new users have a fixed set of business-friendly avatars to choose from.

There are also some design steps that virtual world managers can take to minimize the learning curve, such as putting up signs in appropriate locations to tell users what to do next or having staff on hand to help resolve problems. For example, users attending a virtual conference for the first time might land in a welcome area where they’re greeted and given the materials they need for the event. Signs could say “use arrows to move ahead to the conference area” and “click on a chair to sit down.” By spreading out the learning into the smallest possible units, the learning curve can be flattened to a manageable level.

This means that conference organizers need to be careful to avoid asking users to access inventories, landmarks, outfits, group settings, building tools, or other advanced features as much as humanly possible. These are all things that experienced users take for granted, but asking a visitor to learn all of them at once can be overwhelming.

Instead of handing out landmarks when users need to travel from one location to another, for example, set up gates that people walk through and are instantly teleported. Instead of handing out reading material in the form of notecards, put up Web screens with the required information. For a small meeting, for example, each participant can get their own virtual tablet.

Instead of asking users to go through their inventories to put on an outfit or accessory, put “click to wear” objects in-world.

Finally, design the environment for easy navigation — wide doors, curved glass barriers surrounding drop-offs, plants, corners, sharp edges — anything that could trap an avatar.

Maria Korolov