Avatars rising in the enterprise

Virtual worlds are finding a niche in the workplace for purposes such as training, simulation and prototyping

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"By doing so, they are learning things about that data that otherwise is difficult to absorb and retain from traditional means," says Aguiar.

Avatars in early-adoption phase

With all the hype surrounding avatars and virtual worlds right now, it may strain the imagination to believe that the technology has a viable place in the enterprise, but it is very clearly in the early-adopter phase, according to Erica Driver, principal at analyst firm ThinkBalm, which specializes in the work-related use of the immersive Internet.

"In a 3-D, immersive environment, you can create anything under the sun," says Driver. "You could meet with your colleague inside the human heart and teach students about it." Another example: A pharmaceutical company has just finished a clinical trial, there are 6,000 data points, and decision-makers need to view the data from different angles. "3-D is ideal for situations like this," Driver says.

Companies are eying immersive environments as a way to increase engagement and to "share experiences you could not have in any other way," she says. The software can be installed on a corporate network, delivered on a hardware appliance or accessed via software as a service (SaaS). Whichever form is chosen, these are customized and/or secure versions of the virtual worlds freely available on the Internet.

ThinkBalm estimated enterprise immersive software as a $50 million market in 2009.

Barriers include technology

For widespread adoption to occur, however, Driver believes companies need to overcome three key barriers: technology, cost and perception. Although tremendous improvements have been made in the past year as laptops are being purchased with more powerful graphics cards and memory, she says another technology barrier is that most large companies have security restrictions that don't allow this type of information to flow through the firewall.

Right now, while organizations can test and play with immersive software at very little cost, once a team wants to spend money on an actual pilot and deploy the software in a production environment, it will have to justify the expenditure. This is no small task, as it can be hard to build a business case for immersive software, which some see as frivolous, Driver says.

Longer term, barriers include the challenge of integrating immersive software with other business systems, she says. Today, immersive software is largely stand-alone. It integrates with enterprise directory systems and sometimes with office productivity software or learning management systems, but with little else. To derive additional value from their immersive software investments, organizations will need to integrate them with other business systems, like computer-aided design, product life-cycle management, supply chain management, business intelligence, business process management and more. This will cost money.

And taking the time to figure out how to use virtual environments and develop meaningful applications can be daunting for most business people. Additionally, "there are a lot of negative perceptions that this looks like a video game or cartoon and is not appropriate for the workplace," says Driver, calling this "a formidable barrier."

Robert Bloomfield, a professor at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, agrees. "You say the word avatar, and people start giggling. There's the game taint," says Bloomfield, who also hosts a virtual worlds show called Metanomics. "They think of World of Warcraft and computer games."

Bloomfield also fears that the trend toward smaller mobile devices, which have limited bandwidth and processing power, will be a deterrent to using virtual environments in the workplace.

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