SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. -- Remember the date: July 8, 2008. Today is the day virtual worlds go mainstream. The reason is that Google has launched its own 3D virtual world called Lively. It's free. And it changes everything. Especially for telecommuters.
The current iteration of Lively seems to border on the goofy and cartoonish. But eventually, it's likely that Google's virtual world will become mainstream to the point where enterprises actually conduct real business there.
Like instant messaging and social networking, Lively will probably start out as a trendy hangout for teens, only later to become indispensable for professionals first for internal communication, then later to replace some business travel and even trade shows and the like.
Like so many Google initiatives, Lively is extensible. It's a platform. So not only can users customize, but third-party companies can build "spaces" -- environments in which avatars can interact. (A company called Rivers Run Red has already announced the development of such spaces.)
Although Lively requires a downloadable browser plug-in, the virtual rooms can exist on Web pages or within social networking sites like Facebook. (Besides Google's backing, this is the other reason why Lively will succeed where Second Life did not -- you'll actually start stumbling across Lively rooms all over the place.) And it's integrated with existing sites in other ways, too. You'll be able to watch YouTube videos within Lively Rooms, or import pictures from photo-sharing sites to decorate the walls of your virtual rooms.
What that means is that companies will be able to re-create their office and meeting space, and events companies can create or re-create entire conferencing facilities. Your avatar can wander around, see the "booths," check out the conferences or interface with other "attendees" -- all in virtual space.
As companies increasingly come to use virtual spaces, people outside the office (telecommuters) or outside the country (extreme telecommuters) can enjoy the same kind of interaction and involvement as others those at headquarters.
I know it sounds unlikely that business users will take advantage of virtual spaces like Lively, but new services like this always seem unlikely. Few thought IM or social networking would catch on within enterprises, but now that's clearly what has taken place. And just like companies like Linked-In have tailored the social networking concept for the specific networking needs of business professionals, so will companies customize Lively and other virtual worlds for business.
It's also interesting that Lively is hitting just at the beginning of an oil crisis and economic downturn, when business travel will become much less desirable. Companies and other organizations are already urging employees to work at home. Tools like Lively could improve collaboration and communication for anyone not physically in the office.