At a recent Future of Work Masterclass event I presented on the use of an IndustryMasters business simulation within a bespoke Virtual World named VirBELA. The talk included inworld footage of globally dispersed virtual teams grappling with business issues in a highly-charged competitive environment with the only real difference being that we were watching avatars instead of the people themselves. We heard and were able to watch arresting behaviours such as team conflict, negative and positive body language, exceptional levels of engagement and critical decision making as it happened in-world. All of which had very clear and obvious applications for business use. Which is why the question I was asked almost immediately did not come as a great surprise: “Whatever happened to Second Life?”.
In this article I’ll try to give a more detailed and thoughtful response than I gave at the time, but even there I was able to recognise that the answer had as much to do with what happened to virtual reality and its value to business as it did the progeny of Linden Labs. For further context, it’s worth considering that in Gartner’s 2013 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies Virtual Reality still finds itself rooted firmly in “The Trough of Disillusionment” with an expected wait of 5 to 10 years before potentially reaching the “Plateau of Productivity” where mainstream adoption begins. And whilst Second Life’s 10th Anniversary last year was an opportunity to celebrate a marketplace with over 2m virtual goods for sale and revenues of $3.2bn – hardly a failure – its use by business has all but disappeared. So what happened?
Firstly, it is arguable that the very public failure of many virtual world projects has had an arresting influence on its growth. Research has indicated that over 90 percent of corporate virtual world projects failed within 18 months and less than 10 percent of virtual world registrants become active users, figures largely attributed to technology issues with bandwidth requirements, rendering speeds and the stability of virtual world platforms. A more significant yet largely unheralded issue is likely to relate to issues of privacy and security within virtual worlds, where firms simply do not trust them enough to openly discuss or work on sensitive material.
Yet, technology has improved immeasurably in the past decade and many of the issues which beset the first forays into virtual worlds by pioneering companies such as Cisco and IBM have been largely addressed with bespoke and secure platforms such as VirBELA offering further solutions to issues of security. From research across a staggering range of disciplines we know that virtual worlds offer a host of benefits, particularly where team collaboration across multiple geographies is a necessity. With numerous studies accentuating the superiority of virtual worlds over alternative collaboration modes such as videoconferencing, both in terms of cost and bandwidth requirements.
Our own work demonstrates that the missing link here may, in fact, be purpose. Simply put companies have been unsure what use to make of virtual worlds. Now, simulation technology has progressed to the point that almost any business issue can be modelled in an effective way allowing organisations to address issues such as M&A activity, Diversity and Innovation, Talent Management processes and so on. Yet the potential now exists to build models within a virtual world where the environment itself can be leveraged to reflect the themes being discussed. Genuinely global teams can be formed around business issues which resonate with employees in an environment specifically adapted for synchronous and asynchronous use, where geography can no longer be responsible for the distance and dysfunction common to virtual teams. A place where the potential of virtual worlds may finally be realised.