Avatars Get Down to Business

Lots of corporations are dabbling in virtual worlds, but no one has found the killer app -- yet.

What do Xerox printers, Fenway Park, green creatures and an executive zipping around with a personal jetpack have in common? Are you stumped? You might not be if you had an avatar.

For those who don't, here's the answer: Xerox Corp. workers, customers and analysts all came together for a meeting and product launch held simultaneously at Boston's legendary baseball park and at Xerox Inspiration Island in Second Life. Several virtual participants were, in fact, green, and Xerox Chief Technology Officer Sophie Vanderbroek made a spectacular crash-landing entrance via her virtual jetpack.

Jonas Karlsson, a researcher in the Xerox Innovation Group, says the virtual meeting provided an opportunity to showcase products as well as test the use of Second Life for a meeting. But Karlsson is being modest. In reality, the event has a larger meaning: It's helping to herald the next big thing in communications.

The real world and the virtual one -- in which people represented as avatars can interact with others as well as virtual representations of real and imaginary objects -- are beginning to blur in professional settings, as companies explore how virtual environments and technologies can bring value to their businesses.

Don't worry if you don't have an avatar yet. It's still early. But be warned: Many think it's just a matter of time before being "in-world" becomes as important for business as having a Web site and standard teleconferencing equipment is.

"Everybody's kind of all over the map of this, and for the most part, people have no clue what they're supposed to be doing. It's very much in the exploration phase," says Rob Enderle, principal analyst at San Jose-based Enderle Group. "But eventually someone will do it right -- and we're still waiting for that someone who does it right -- and then they'll all come flocking to it."

Businesses are already getting a sense of what the right approach might entail, mostly from entertainment companies, Enderle says. He points to The Walt Disney Co.'s virtual-world offerings, which include a fairy site and a Pirates of the Caribbean site, as ways to attract and retain customers.

"Those are ways to keep [kids] tied into the Disney experience so they'll consume goods and services," says Enderle. "They're one of the few companies that really thought through that, but even with them, I don't think we've hit the limit on really making use of the tools."

CTO Sophie Vanderbroek's avatar provides a guided tour of virtual Xerox.

But, again, it's still early.

It was just two years ago that Second Life, the virtual world created by Linden Research Inc. and the clear leader in this arena, starting making headlines, says Stephen Prentice, an analyst at Gartner Inc. And even though SL is the best known of the virtual worlds, it's not really that big. It claims about 12 million residents, but Prentice says that number refers to the 12 million people who have downloaded the free software. The actual number of users who have been in-world in the past 30 days is closer to 850,000.

That's not a huge target audience, yet some companies were still eager to jump into Second Life and other popular virtual worlds during the past two years, Prentice says.

"When it started to take off in 2006, we saw a lot of companies creating virtual headquarters," he says. Some of the big-name automakers, banks and hotels replicated themselves in virtual worlds and then waited to see who would show up, using their virtual operations as a way to market, advertise and maybe make money.

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