From the September 2009 issue of Treasury & Risk magazine

Virtual Meeting Rush

Accountant, CEO and executive director of the Maryland Association of CPAs, Tom Hood might not look like the kind of guy who spends a lot of time in an imaginary world. But he does--at work. And he encourages other accountants to do the same. That's because MACPA runs continuing education sessions for accountants in Second Life. Even though the virtual world has attracted its share of press for the zany shenanigans of its virtual residents, like dressing up in crazy virtual costumes, having virtual affairs and speculating on virtual real estate, there's also serious business going on in Second Life--and now, in OpenSim as well.

OpenSim is software that lets any company create its own private, virtual world. What could be a big breakthrough for business users of virtual worlds occurred at the end of June, when IBM announced the release of its Lotus Sametime 3D collaboration product, based on the OpenSim platform.

Celebrating its sixth anniversary, Second Life is the grand-daddy of virtual worlds. More than 200 colleges and universities have a presence in Second Life, as do many corporations, including Wells Fargo, Banco Bradesco, Accenture, British Petroleum and Unilever.

"That's what prompted us to investigate and play around with it," says Hood. "Once we got there, we found that it was actually a pretty effective medium to hold meetings and conduct training."

Over the course of the last year and half, MACPA has held more than a dozen "mixed reality" meetings in Second Life attended by more than 400 people. Such gatherings involve a physical meeting that is simultaneously broadcast into Second Life. Attendees can come to the physical location or attend the meeting virtually. Either way, they can interact with one another and with the speakers.

"We can have breaking hot topics with national--and even international--thought leaders, without the expense of flying people in and taking two days off to have a one-hour update," Hood says, adding that it's cheaper than conducting a Webcast. For example, in June, MACPA hosted the XBRL International Conference on its island in Second Life, streaming live sessions from Paris, PowerPoint slides and all.

"The main point was the savings," he says. "Video crew and Internet costs were over $6,000 for the Webcast alternative." In addition, a virtual world creates the illusion of being there for attendees. "You actually feel that you're in a room with other people," Hood says. "And you can connect."

He has also noticed that people are more likely to ask questions during a virtual event than in a face-to-face meeting. "People feel safe," he says. "For having thought-provoking-type topics or collaboration, it's a critical extra value."

Finally, virtual worlds provide a three-dimensional experience that can't be matched anywhere else, even in the real world. Where else could you walk through a live, three-dimensional graph of financial data?

But if those financial data are particularly sensitive, companies may not want to put them on a public grid like Second Life. "Companies want to have their own servers, completely behind their own firewall," says Chris Collins, general manager for enterprise at San Francisco-based Linden Lab, which runs Second Life. "This is something that we have just started deploying."

The company has already piloted the product, code-named Nebraska, with several clients, including Intel, Northrop Grumman and IBM.

Training and meetings are the top business uses of virtual worlds, says Adam Frisby, co-director of virtual world consulting firm DeepThink Pty in Perth, Australia, which helps companies around the globe use the Second Life and OpenSim platforms. "There are no travel fees," Frisby says. "And there's no productivity loss--they don't need to worry about taking a day off work and factoring in travel time."

Virtual worlds still have obstacles to overcome, however. PricewaterhouseCoopers has been researching and testing virtual worlds for more than two years, and several hundred employees have attended meetings on the virtual platform. Virtual worlds are still seen as speculative, says Jonathan Reichental, the firm's IT innovations director. "We're still a few years away from [it's] being acknowledged as a mainstream technology. For many of our tools, for our professionals, there is too much of a learning curve."

But Reichental and other experts predict a faster uptake with IBM's Lotus Sametime 3D collaboration product, which is based on the OpenSim platform. OpenSim-based worlds can be accessed by the same browsers as Second Life. The difference between the two is that OpenSim is an open source product that is readily customizable and already available to run behind a corporate firewall.

With OpenSim, IBM can offer a collaborative meeting space to its corporate clients with all the features currently available in Second Life, such as building tools and avatar appearance editors, and some not currently available in Second Life, such as a sticky-note board that comes standard with the Sametime 3D platform. "That uses a function that doesn't exist in Second Life," says Karen Keeter, IBM's digital convergence marketing executive.

The Sametime 3D product can also be integrated with a company's internal directory. Pilot customers are using the platform for meetings among employees located at remote locations. "A couple of companies were using it to do strategic planning," Keeter says. "We had a group that ran a series of sessions with managers around the world to see what they needed to do to improve leadership development across the company."

The product can be configured to run completely behind a corporate firewall, or in a way that allows access to outside visitors like clients and business partners.

A Glossary for Finding Your Virtual Way

AVATAR: A virtual character. Avatars currently look like cartoons, though it's possible to create avatars with photo realistic faces. In business meetings, people usually configure their avatars to look as much like their real selves as possible. Some, however, prefer to look younger or thinner, change genders or have animal, alien or robot shapes. Each company can determine its own dress code for employee avatars.

GRID: A flat virtual universe composed of one or more regions. Avatars can walk, fly or teleport between regions. Grids can be located behind a firewall and accessible only to a company's employees, or in a publicly accessible location to allow logins by outsiders--students, clients or business partners. Grids can also be hypergrid enabled, allowing people to teleport between grids instead of having to log on to each one separately. Setting up a grid is about as complicated as setting up a Web server and, as with Web sites, there are companies that will set up or host grids.

REGION: An area on a grid, about 16 acres in size. A region has terrain-some parts may be underwater or mountainous. Objects and buildings can be placed on the region or in the air above it.

TELEPORTATION: Teleporting from one location to another is much quicker and more convenient than walking. It's also the only way to travel between grids. Some grids, including Second Life, restrict teleportation to other grids. For example, a company or school might want to restrict access only to registered users. In addition, there are still unresolved issues surrounding intellectual property rights to items produced on a grid.

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