Relevance: Seeking the Virtual-to-Real Bridge

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It astounds me how little the business community knows about virtual worlds. Even the most progressive sectors—visionary nonprofits, world class museums, and major universities—may be represented, but how many of them take advantage of what the medium has to offer? My intention has been to find out, though I learn more whenever I am in-world. With a perspective now from having experienced a range of projects, I have to ask without rose-colored glasses: what is the business case? Do organizations use the medium to its potential? I am questioned vigorously about this, as every creative marketer I know is curious. As a Publishing Pioneer, I forage into it like I do any other new technology—asking questions, testing, building, experimenting, and writing. I know in my bones that the future lies here as long as businesses use the internet.

BUSINESS CASE:

As with any new medium, the question has to be: what can I do with this vehicle that I can’t do with any others? That requires a learning curve, however, because potentials can’t be judged without knowing the capabilities. Although I believe in the future of virtual reality to transform businesses, education, and the arts, it has a steep learning curve. Now with a good level of proficiency, I can best evaluate what it can contribute to an organization’s communications. The reason an enterprise should venture into this unknown opens vast options for visibility, resources, and development. There are several virtual worlds now, the best of which interlink. So those who are considering the potential of doing business in a virtual world have several ways to engage. No matter the platform, the uses and expectations are the same. The best uses I have found include:

tools of trade Presentation. By having a virtual office with resources, information, an inviting atmosphere, and online help features, customers have a place to visit and interact. Consider it like an expanded website where prospects can walk into an environment that engages them on many levels.

For example, The Stream Team provides streaming services to musicians. In their cozy virtual office, they have screens that show videos upon a click, downloadable tip sheets, online assistants monitoring the group chat, and technical help professionals on staff.

tools of trade Building Community. Even small businesses today can work on global collaborations. Virtual reality erases the distance between people and is more ruled by time zone markets and targeted communities of interest than it is geography. Getting feedback, growing international visibility, building resources, are all part of being in an urban environment. Virtual reality is like a short-cut ramp onto the highway of progress.

For example, Nonprofit Commons brings together sixty organizations that are using Second Life to exchange ideas, resources, help, fund raise, and build visibility. Opensim now has 20,000 users, hosted by IBM with a business focus.

tools of trade Prototyping. There is no better place to try a new idea than in a virtual world. In fact, the it offers opportunities to try paths not taken in the real world. Developing ideas virtually and testing them is a tiny fraction of what it costs to do the same with real markets where production costs, shipping, travel, or marketing need generous budgets. Museums can mount exhibits that augment themes and help to fund raise for real installations.

For example, a small potential museum wished to open in Wisconsin. Lacking funds, the staff built an exhibit in Second Life to build visibility, to show potential donors, and to evolve with feedback from the community. Then when they had the funds to develop the real museum, their approaches were honed and targeted.

tools of trade  Cost effective. Expands interactivity to be cost-effective. Every medium has strengths to exploit. Virtual reality expands interactivity so that collaborations in various locations can still have the magic of rapport, working together, and building relationships. Avatars are like walking business cards or self-portraits. Building sophistication does take evolution, but most business people pay to have their avatars polished to their choice. I see no reason not to idealize if given the opportunity, so my avatar is a younger and blonder version of myself. When I do business, appear at events, go to meetings, do research, attend classes, I am interacting with people from around the world there doing similar. We share perspectives. We can meet and discuss in ways that will never be possible physically. I am currently interviewing the Director of Book Island, and she is Brittish. My partner is from Romania. My best friends are from Virginia, California, Germany, Canada, Brittain, Australia, and Desplaines in my backyard!

tools of tradeRunning events. Virtual worlds are driven by groups. Mass marketing, beyond being listed in the Destination Guide and/or on Market Place, is not a good idea. Sims have audience size-limits and there are trouble-makers on the grid. Yet hosting an event is the best way to promote and keep an audience engaged. Attention-spans are short, distractions are many, so staying in front of the groups with activities and offers builds a fan base.

For example: Thothica has built a community of philosophers and artists that love to discuss world-view bigger-picture issues. They have regular round-tables, game events, a library, art gallery, and meditation areas. A place to come together, resources and ideas are also exchanged.

tools of trade Tapping resources. If cross-fertilization feeds creativity, there is no better place to find it. Through communities of interest, friends relate their experiences and expand understanding between cultures. Interacting with parallel colleagues is an opportunity only scratched at by social media. Here, real relationships are built through a virtual connection.

For example, I have been designing the interiors for several virtual houses, using art to set up a theme. I asked permission of the house and furniture designer to use his work in a photograph of my installation. He gave enthusiastic permission and asked to see the rooms. So I went to each sent for him, he popped in, and I gave him a tour of what I am working on. We gave each other samples of things we have created. He critiqued some of my technical choices and taught me a few techniques. We discussed collaborative ideas. And we agreed to help promote one another. Then he popped back to whatever he was doing, and the whole process took less than an hour.

tools of trade Demonstration. Training takes on a new level when an avatar can explore various options and go to resources that are the most inviting. Through building a community, audience, or fan base, they can be best served by having a center and a place to get more than Frequently Asked Questions or e-forms to fill out. In the future, consumers will go online and INTO the interactive world of each organization to find out solutions, learn new topics, be entertained, or build contacts.

For example: Furniture companies can have virtual showrooms that can be changed frequently, present new designs, give the viewer the ability to try different colors or sizes, demonstrate relevance of use, and direct the customer to further resources such as YouTube, blogs, and websites.

tools of trade Education. The potential for classes, illustrations, instruction, and efficient teacher-student relationships is unlimited. Similarly, the musicians who find that they have a closer relationship to their listeners through chat and IM than they do with a real life audience that is gauged by applause and sits in the distance.

For example: Learning languages is one of the early topics to find virtual reality a new way to teach, practice, and interact. Sims that speak other languages can be visited and real field experience gained by using what is learned.

The future of education, art, business will rely on virtual reality. It makes every sense economically, raises the usership of technology, increases global understanding, offers new communication platforms, and will boost small business. It can be frustrating at this point because the origins of virtual worlds comes out of the gaming industry. There are a lot of distractions and time-consuming temptations where discipline must be exercised.

For those who spend their leisure hours in virtual worlds traveling around, making friends, playing games, dancing, shopping, breeding animals, building dream houses, and engaging in fantasies, there is an infrastructure of commerce, education, and culture. Like any real world city, there are all kinds of people present in the virtual world. I avoid public areas, concentrate on my projects and experiments, and learn about various industries. Also I am balanced by my strong personal relationships that grow with sharing. An expanded world, most rules I have learned in business do apply. But there are new ones that I will always be exploring.

Liane Sebastian, illustrator, designer, writer, and publishing pioneer

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