Fourth Age Communiqué - Leadership for the rest of us

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Lessons Learned in virtual worlds development

My team has learned a number of valuable lessons in two years of virtual worlds development:

  • Resourcing is a strategic issue - The value of the virtual world platform is directly proportional to the resources invested in developing and deploying it. Or, if you want to do business effectively in a 3D space, you either need to have access to a good platform, or have some serious scratch to roll your own.

    When we launched our development project in 2006, Second Life was not available for use behind a firewall. It wasn't available until this year. Very few platforms, in fact, were available for enterprise deployment at the time. And few offered source code. Torque was a good choice then, and remains a good choice now, given the following double-edged sword:
    1. You can build your own environment. Having the source code for Torque allowed us to integrate our intranet login service on deployment. Go without a common login and see how necessary it is for everything else inside the enterprise.

    2. You had better be committed. Retrofitting a first-person shooter game to be a social platform is no small feat.

  • Simplicity is a virtue - Second Life requires somewhere around four (4) hours of investment before people will stay in world. Our platform can on-board people in an hour. This includes 3000 avatar permutations, a dozen controls in a (very) simple user interface, and around a half-dozen core features in world (presentations, games, social networking visualization, dynamic meeting spaces, basic object / services integration) for hosting meetings and sparking collaborative discussion.

  • Context is everything - Or, as Roo Reynolds once said, "people don't go to a coffee shop to collaborate; they go there to have coffee." The value of a 3D environment is not the virtual world; it is the virtual space. The more real estate, the less value. Conversely, the more context, the more value.

    One of the single largest barriers to virtual worlds adoption is the lack of contextual spaces. Sure, as a Second Life enthusiast, you may know how to get around because you have a long list of landmarks. But recall your first trip to Orientation Island, or sit with someone who has not broken the SL 4-hour barrier, and see how quick they are to figure out where the hot spots are in world. And only after they find them do they have to figure out what's worth doing. And who to talk to. And who is a colleague and who is not. It's a long way to collaboration in a wide open vista.

  • Business value is the holy grail - No one has been here before, attempting to deliver a virtual space for collaboration behind the firewall. The mushrooms of successful collaboration in a 3D space (or any other remote, synchronous technology, for that matter) are not clearly defined as edible or fatal. And someone must be the first to eat them. With Second Life enterprises are unable to share intellectual property or trade secrets, the coin of the realm for most businesses. So what works outside the firewall will not necessarily work inside, and vice versa.

    So how do we define business value? The economic downturn is a boon, ironically. With travel severely curtailed, and green as the new innovation, offering a space in which we can collaborate remotely and worldwide is suddenly much more attractive. Anything that allows remote teams to be more effective than they are now by having a sense of social proximity and connection is a benefit. Hosting meetings - especially on the fly - is heading in the right direction. But we still need to figure out the free form paradigm (vast open spaces, no context, heavy dependence upon self-expression).

    And as with all technologies, virtual meeting spaces are not the solution; they are just tools in search of a well facilitated process.
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