Cisco chief lauds coming virtual-world technology

Virtual worlds will succeed eventually, Chambers says

Cisco Systems Inc. CEO John Chambers today appeared at a virtual press conference in Second Life, where he predicted that virtual world technologies will eventually "explode" in terms of business usage and their impact.

Chambers, whose avatar was dressed in a business suit, disagreed with some recent expert opinions and blogs that virtual world designers and operators are facing a downturn in businesses that are interested in starting up virtual world meeting rooms or product demonstrations in Second Life and other platforms.

"I disagree with that overall commentary," he said. "We are at the very, very beginning stages" of virtual world uses.

Chambers noted that some technologies may take time to catch on. "If there's one thing I've learned, it's that sometimes concepts are a little too early, and when they take off, they take off with speed," he said. "When a [technology] market does move, it moves faster than anyone anticipated."

He said that in the 1990s, Cisco made predictions about Internet technologies that took time to grow but eventually exceeded forecasts. "We'll see [virtual worlds] explode," Chambers said. "We have to have it more ubiquitous, and it's the very front end of a very large wave of opportunities." Ever the pitch man, Chambers said Cisco networking technologies are "really bringing that virtual ability" and that Cisco stands to "benefit in a big way."

In his summary at the end of the 25-minute press conference, Chambers said that all kinds of virtual interfaces, including YouTube, wikis and virtual reality, "will forever change business models and entertainment. ... We may disagree on the time frame. It's not a question of if, but when."

Cisco spokeswoman Jeanette Gibson said that while there are many platforms used by businesses for virtual meetings and customer interactions, Cisco has relied largely on Second Life to allow customers to visit Cisco islands, or simulations, to view and interact with Cisco products. Cisco also has an internally created virtual world where its channel partners can meet to discuss business opportunities.

Stephen Prentice, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said in a recent Computerworld article that some companies have entered a "hiatus" with virtual world technologies in the past year, either shutting them down or letting their virtual operations turn into ghost towns. They did so because they couldn't get customers interested and have turned to using virtual reality for collaboration instead of e-commerce, he added.

In a Terra Nova blog post this month, Bruce Damer, a virtual world innovator, posed the question of whether the virtual world industry is facing a "winter" just as severe as the downturn that ran from 2000 to 2003. Damer said signs of an "upcoming chasm" include reports that regular use at Second Life is small enough that it would not stay in existence if compared to a typical massive multiplayer online game platform. He also questioned whether several new virtual world platforms could "Balkanize" a limited user base.

Damer also asked whether there are so many real-time means of representing people online, including low-cost voice-over-IP systems like Skype, that virtual worlds might always struggle for visibility.

However, in addition to his optimistic outlook for virtual reality technology, Chambers claimed that Cisco is the most advanced of any company in using virtual interfaces. He said that employee usage of wikis doubled in the past six months, while the use of YouTube video content for business applications had quadrupled in four months. Such technologies can improve workplace productivity, he claimed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon