Millions of people are enjoying their alternate virtual lives, primarily for its social and entertainment value. Ron Burns, president of Proton Media, which operates virtual worlds for remote learning, points out that there are practical benefits, as well.
For example, the business value of training in virtual worlds is faster and more effective than in other channels. Pilots and surgeons, for example, have long relied on simulations that allow them to attempt new things. Virtual reality provides them with the opportunity to learn in an environment where the outcome isn’t life or death.
Thomas Malone, Professor of management at the MIT Sloan School of Management further points out another example of how virtual worlds may provide real life benefits. He says that studying leadership in virtual worlds leads to conclusions that also apply in the real world. He believes that leadership isn’t just a function of the individual, but also of the environment. Games, for example, create a structure based on rewards, transparency about player performance statistics, and multiple communication channels, which helps leadership emerge. Malone suggests that instead of focusing on “leadership training”, it would be wise to divert some resources towards creating virtual environments that facilitate the process.
Indeed, participating in a virtual world is much more than just a game for many people. For some, online interactions are as real (or even more real) than actual face-to-face exchanges. For others, the experience can sometimes border on the religious.
According to PC pioneer, Mitch Kapor, mystical moments of insight can be found in virtual worlds. Kapor is the chairman of Linden Lab, which operates Second Life. He says there’s something indescribable about the shared, online experience.
Kapor says he first realized the potential of Second Life at an in-world Suzanne Vega concert last year. While Vega performed from a recording studio, her audience gathered around thousands of miles apart, sitting in front of personal computers all around the world. The virtual concert brought them all together in the same “place”, which he compared to the drug experiences of the '60s.
Apparently others are feeling the magic too. According to Kapor, "A huge number of passionate early adopters had some kind of mystical experience," he said while delivering the keynote address at the Virtual Worlds conference sponsored by IBM and MIT last week.
"What's driving virtual worlds is a shared sense, by a few hundred thousand crazy people, that this is important, and they're going to drop everything and go after this."
Even so, virtual worlds still have a long way to go until they become mainstream. Kapor says they’ll need the equivalent of the Web application server. They need improved user interfacing, and they need to be decentralized, to permit creation of private space--the equivalent of intranets and extranets.
Linden Lab is currently moving towards decentralization. Since January, they have allowed people to put up their own servers and attach them to the main Second Life grid. They also want to eliminate proprietary protocols. Their reasons for taking these steps lies in the conviction that its biggest threat is not an existing company, but rather a future virtual world that will emerge already running on those principles. Basically, if they don’t do it, someone else will beat them to the punch.
The picture currently emerging of Virtual worlds, echoes the past development of PCs. As a disruptive technology, with unforeseen consequences, virtual worlds will enable people to do new things. In the process there will be new economies of winners and losers. One way or another, virtual worlds are likely to become truly mainstream.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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