Virtual Worlds: Still Cool, but Not Compelling for Business

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Virtual worlds aren't getting much love from CIOs. According to a Robert Half Technology survey I mentioned in an August post, 84 percent of CIOs said they weren't interested in virtual worlds.


Later that same month, IT Business Edge's Rob Enderle wrote about his growing interest in what he calls "a true blending of the real and virtual." One example he offered, based upon the technology of a surveillance company called Milestone: An alert system could notify security staff of a downed employee on a factory floor, then show them the quickest way to get there with a gurney and the quickest exit route, along with added features such as electrical outlets an emergency team could use. At the same time, a line manager could see what the line shutdown was doing to his manufacturing process and provide routing alternatives to work around the bottleneck or recommend visually how the line could be restored.


Sure, this sounds vastly preferable to a couple of guys with two-way radios. But does it offer enough tangible benefit for companies to pony up the bucks for it? I'd put it in the "cool but not compelling" category.


One factor I mentioned in my August post was the slowing economy and CIOs' resulting reluctance to invest in technologies for which it's tough to illustrate a clear return on investment. Since then, of course, the economy has tanked, leaving them even less likely to take chances on such technologies.


So forgive me if I am less than excited by projects like one detailed in a recent Forbes article, in which the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab plans to employ a combination of sensors, displays and software to "bring real-world data into virtual worlds and to integrate access to virtual worlds with real-world situations." Not surprisingly, funding for the project is being provided by Linden Labs, the creator of the Second Life environment.


The idea is that anyone wearing an electronic badge will be able to walk up to a display, see a Second Life landscape and communicate with users there. Second Life users will be able to do the same thing on their end. So Second Life participants could, in theory, sit in on remote meetings. Unless this is less costly and/or less complicated than other forms of videoconferencing, I predict most tech executives simply won't be interested.


That's not to say that some forms of virtual worlds won't ultimately prove useful in a business setting. The story notes that IBM earlier this year created a virtual mock-up of a data center in Switzerland to allow its engineers to remotely track its power consumption and suggest improvements. Says Colin Parris, IBM's vice president of digital convergence:

You can remotely enter the data center and actually hear the hum of a power system, to know if that fan is running a little too much. From an auditory clue, you can fix something in the real world.