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I am keen proponent of using virtual worlds like Second Life for virtual meetings.  The benefits of being able to quickly meet up, use spatial VoIP speech chat with people all over the world will eventually mean that many events take place solely “in-world”.  My personal view is that in when viewed through the lens of ROI, many real conferences will die within the next 10-15 years.  The normal argument, that real events are so much better because you can look people in the eye, and the coffee is better are OK, but in-reality I think some of this is motivated by wanting a day out of the office, and yes the coffee IS better.

So, whilst the social factors and the technology catch-up, there is still going to be the need for real meetings and conferences in the meantime. Unless of course they’re all cancelled by the credit crunch accountants 😉

Like others though (David Burden of Daden for example has a great post  on this:), I and our team have been exploring ways of adding value to conferences and meetings using virtual worlds and web2.0 technologies.  Things like using Twitter as a backchannel, and using social networking tools to allow delegates to network before, during and after the conference, so they use their time more effectively are great ways to improve the event experience.

David also mentions simultaneously running a virtual track where sessions take place in a virtual environment too.  This can be further improved by streaming audio or video one or both ways.  In practice though, it’s quite a lot of effort to do this and you are frequently at the mercy of the wireless or wired network at your conference venue, as I found to my cost recently.  For “new media” type of conferences, where folk are familiar with the technology and fault tolerant when things go wrong, this is fine, but for many others, the risks are too high.  Even using Twitter is a new concept still to many never mind a virtual world!

At the event

So… how DO you use virtual worlds to add value to mainstream conferences and events? First rule, as ever, is keep it simple.  At a few conferences that IBM has hosted or attended, I have manned a pedestal, showcasing our Virtual Business Center and Virtual Green Data Center.  I also have a high-resolution video tour of these on hand in case of network issues.  At the very least these add some nice eye-candy and a conversation starter, which is half the battle on a trade stand, and seeing as pretty much every man and his dog in IBM has tried some kind of virtual worlds project, we can demo something relating to whatever topic the conference might be about, at least loosely.  Used well, these can start real business discussions.  I was pleasantly suprised that at the Green IT Expo this week, I had many conversations with people

At the Rational Developers conference I also facilitated a virtual Grady Booch to be able to present to the real audience in the auditorium, with mixed results (i.e. it started well and then was scotched by the venue LAN!  😦 – i.e. it wasn’t actually a Second Life problem per se, more a problem of running a live virtual anything – see risk comments above).  I was aware that this might happen, and had tried to de-riske the possibility by having a backup video of the presentation that was running in parrallel that we could switch to, although in the event one of the other speakers picked up the baton and carried on.  Having the backup video also meant that I didn’t need to try and record the talk live (i.e. lower risk) and I could simply make the pre-recorded talk available to the AV company for editing into the highlights video.

Post Event (and possibly Pre)

One area I think virtual worlds CAN really add value is in followup virtual events.  Having met everyone physically at the event or conference, participants now have a shared experience of a real event, which gives them something in common, and also have a memory of the people they met.  These two factors can be used to try and continue to gel these people into a community using subsequent virtual events – e.g. “meet the expert” type Q&A events.  People have a memory of the people they met, which anecdotally tends to improve the quality of subsequent virtual meetings – as Roo Reynolds recently noted:

“we may build relationships online but it’s hard to start them that way. “

These kind of smaller, more frequent virtual events can allow an extension of an event in a very cost effective way that would’ve been more or less impossible before.

Add to this the option of steaming the virtual event on-line for the high proportion of people that will not yet be ready to dip their toes into virtuality, and it means that everyone can take part.

This is also potentially a great way to qualify people’s interest for an invitation to a real event.  I have heard stories recently of expensive, poorly attended events.  By running cheap pre-events, possibly using virtual worlds or even just a conference call or web-ex, you should be able to get some sense of who might come to a real event.

At the recent Virtual Worlds Forum event, the organisers hit a major problem where the planned venue was closed due to an unrelated shooting the night before.  I quickly setup a virtual “refugee camp” for displaced avatars, which, given the available time, was quite successful, demonstrating how quick and easy it can be to run fully virtual events, when your participants are up on the technology.

Why are virtual worlds conferences held in the real world?

This is the frequently repeated and obvious joke.  Ironically however, the virtual worlds industry is probably going to be the last one to hold it’s conferences in a virtual world as choosing a virtual world to hold it in, is a highly political decision as many potential attendees run their own platforms!

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On this auspicious day for America, I’ve just realised that I have a larger (albeit somewhat tenuous) link to the US government than I’d previously thought. I’ve just realised that one of the pictures I took of our Virtual Business Center in Second Life appeared in Colin Parris’ submission to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet Hearing about Second Life.

Here’s the submission

Here’s the video of it – Colin comes in about halfway.  It’s quite an interesting start with committee members quite amused that the whole thing is being simulcast into Second Life with the speaker noting that his avatar is more trim than he is 🙂

And here’s the original picture below.  As helper to Sarah, my wife in her photography business it’s quite a one-up to note my pics (ok virtual photo) have been seen by such a group!  🙂

I just finished an interesting exercise in social networking from web2.0 to web3.0…  I posted on Twitter, that I was offering to take folk on a tour of our Virtual Green Data Center in Second Life. I currently have 129 followers on Twitter, so that offer pinged out to them, and Erica Driver of the innovation community site, Thinkbalm, accepted.

We setup a meeting and have just shown Erica and Sam Driver around (nice name badges!).  We had a good discussion around how we are using this to promote IBM’s green capabilities to our clients.  One major theme that came out was that these environments offer opportunities to show things that would be very hard to demonstrate in other ways, or are just much more compelling and memorable than the alternatives.  Thanks for visiting Erica!

Ironically, my PC crashed as I had the radiator on, just as I’d been talking about water cooling in IBM servers!  Perhaps my room needs a rear door heat exchanger on!?

If anyone else would like a tour, drop me a line: airesk@uk.ibm.com

Quick summary of Virtual Worlds London conference day 1…

Ron demoing Olive

Ron demoing Olive

Firstly big thanks to Ron from Ambient Performance for supplying me with a full pass for the conference, when I realised at the last minute that IBM didn’t actually have a stand(!)  Ron was demoing the olive platform during one of the breaks and had a team of people demonstrating how it could be used for sales training.  The team were across the US logged in live.  It was quite amusing as they had a mother and child and the mom was interrupting a sales assistant to say that her child needed the restroom and if she didn’t get help her daughter would go potty right there and then!  🙂

Mark Kindon opened the batting for Linden Labs with a 30min infomercial for Second Life, which was fine by me as a Second Life fan.  It was interesting to see what Rivers Run Red are doing with LL on out of the box virtual spaces, and have largely dropped their agency work to focus on it.  They still have a strong design ethos though from what I saw, with some lovely builds, which take the white label idea to an extreme (very white very Apple).  I think that this and the IBM Sametime/opensim/forterra integration stuff are the most interesting stuff for mainstream business I’ve seen (apart from qwaq).

I was also interested in Mark’s comment about their mixed reality meeting room which carries the spatial sound from second life into the real world nicely.  Perhaps I need to put in for a 7.1 surround sound system.  Sound was the one thing I skimped on when speccing up my pc, settling for on-board sound. 🙂

As for take up by the enterprise of virtual worlds, one thing that came up a few times, was it will just take time.  Takes time for large companies to evaluate, test and assimilate anything, especially something as left field as virtual worlds.  Also, the people for whom this is natural will take time to grow up and become part of the workforce, but it will happen.

Lots of stats from Strategy Analytics, KZero and Gartner.  Was interested in KZero’s assessment that growth areas are virtual worlds based around brands – e.g. watch out for lego (perhaps especially given their successful foray into games), also “vertical worlds” based around specific interest groups.

Steve Prentice from Gartner tried to simplify the whole stats issues.  His rough assessment was that the ratio of software client downloads to real users is 10:1.  Also was strong on the idea of Effort vs. Reward and that VWs are often high effort for low reward.  Contrast this with say World of Warcraft – high effort, high reward and Facebook, low effort, high reward. His other soundbites were,

Think:

purpose not volume

value not numbers

people not physics – users don’t give a monkeys about technology, they want to meet people like them.

Moving on to Virtual Worlds in the Workplace session.  Most interesting comment to me, was from Justin Bovington of Rivers Run Red who said that there most asked for feature was a “window on the virtual world” even if they were not logged in – i.e. live video feed from the virtual world.  We’ve thought about doing that, so perhaps we should revisit it!  🙂

Virtual Worlds Roadmap

Virtual Worlds Roadmap

Some good stuff from the Virtual World Roadmap folk later on, who were encouraging folk to get involved.  Ian Hughes and I went up to hand in business cards at the end and suggested that IBM’s Virtual Universe Community could be good contributers to this effort.

Haptictatsic!

Haptictatsic!

Another cool demo I saw, was the haptic device from Anarkik3D

At the end of the day, were 1 or 2 companies who shall remain nameless, but whose sole purpose seemed to be to provide amusement by pitching their ideas in a really poor way.  One had some of the worst slidewear and presentation I’ve ever seen and was then asking for venture capital.  I was still not really sure what the product was or what problem it solved!!!

Champagne on the London Eye

Champagne on the London Eye

I met up with the Metaverse Mod Squad folk afterwards and walked over

MMS at Big Ben

MMS at Big Ben

to the London Eye for Champagne with Crisp Thinking and KZero.

Big Ben

Big Ben

Aftwards we went to the Marriot County Hall for dinner in a private oak pannelled dining room.

chat

chat

Nice!

Nice!

Food was delicious!

yum!

yum!

Thank you Metaverse Mod Squad for the invite!  I have been an advocate for their business model since coming across them at the NY VW show back in March.  Land in virtual worlds is cheap for companies, people are expensive.  Do the maths and that says that even popular places will often feel empty…. unless staffed by enthusistic affordable non-specialists, which is where MMS come in.

I’d better get some sleep as it’s 12:47am and in too short a time I have to get up, head into London and do it all over again.

This weeks Virtual Worlds Forum in London is now over.  The event had started on an unexpected low with the the conference venue turning into a crime scene after an unrelated shooting at the weekend. During the first day, some folk regrouped to “The Hospital” – a private members club for creative types in Covent Garden.

As I knew many people would no longer be heading into London I offered to setup a virtual refugee camp at the IBM Business Center.  As the afternoon progress more people arrived and after showing Jeff Barr and Giles Hogburn around the Virtual Green Data Center, Giles agreed to present his very interesting talk planned for the VWF on my virtual chat show Boris in Wonderland.  You can see it by visiting my Boris in Wonderland show channel, and pressing “On Demand” and then VWF.  Our comms team also picked up the story and sent out a press release about it.

In the evening, the planned South by Southwest mixer party continued as planned, and I quickly wrapped up Giles’ presentation so I could head in for it.  I met up with some of the VWF team, did a quick vox pops (7.5mins in (bear in mind it was pretty loud and my hearing is not so good ) ) for the VWF podcast series, met Bruce from Vastpark (who’s pitch seemed to make a lot of sense to me), discussed IBM’s Lotus virtual worlds announcements with the Ambient team, and met lots of others.  I hopefully snaffled a few people to appear on Boris in Wonderland in the future. ) Good evening and free drinks )

The next day, the VWF arranged an “unconference” at the Hospital, where about 100 die-hards showed up to set the agenda, meet and greet.  Ian Hughes, Rob Smart and I spread out and effectively setup an IBM track and input to other sessions too.  Ian hosted a discussion on 3D printing, Rob ran on on inter-world messaging and I ran one how to communicate virtual worlds to business technophobes.  I also attended a session on “when will corporates get virtual worlds”, to which my answer was basically, when their sales people understand it (that’s my experience in IBM!) and when they are all running Sametime 3D ) I got to see Klaus Hammermuller again and was hearing how his “Talkademy” (one of the best uses for virtual worlds I’ve seen) is going now he’s left IBM.  Ian also introduced me to Mal Burns, an interesting character who is I understand a well known blogger and twitterer.  Indeed, through talking to a few folk over the conference has inspired me to get back into blogging, twittering etc and basically get give myself a shotinthearm2.0 (running my own virtual chat show is clearly not enough, apparently I have to be web2.0 not just 3.0 ;) ).  That’s the problem with working from home and being busy it’s just too easy to stay focussed on core work, and spend time with your wife and kids and that’s not what the modern world is about  )

All in all a bit of a pheonix from the ashes.  It’s hard to say whether there would’ve been lots of potential clients there originally, but there certainly wasn’t at the unconference.  Time will tell whether the Virtual Worlds expo in 2 weeks will be any better…

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