Evolution of Business in Virtual Environments

Evolution of Business in Virtual Environments

Rita King
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61692-808-7.ch005
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Virtual business as defined in this chapter is any business interaction that takes place in an immersive digital space in which individuals are represented by “avatars” in three-dimensional, user-created environments. While there are hundreds of virtual worlds and hundreds of millions of people globally participating in them, this chapter focuses on Second Life®, owned by Linden Lab. At the time of this writing, eighteen million Second Life® accounts have been registered and participants have spent a billion hours in-world. US $1 billion has changed hands in Second Life® between people in more than 100 countries representing hundreds of cultures. Thousands of universities, companies, institutions and organizations have Second Life® bureaus. This chapter will examine the evolution of some of the most remarkable projects taking place within this virtual world, featuring the passion of early adopters, the role of the media, current examples of virtual work, the evolution of the virtual workforce, the shift in the role of managers toward a collaborative virtual model, the relationship between education and virtual work, and virtual goods and services.
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Early Adopters

When cars were first introduced to the cultural and economic scenes, many people considered them horseless carriages. The idea of traveling 60 miles in an hour’s time held little allure for people who had no interest in going that far from home when communities, families and friends were all nearby. Moving pictures seemed similarly absurd at their advent. Why look at moving pictures when life moves right in front of you with no special arrangement required?

Virtual worlds fit into this same category of mainstream reception, but like their predecessors, the novelty will give way to a major cultural and economic transformation. The shift will be tumultuous for those who don’t refresh their skills in time, and lucrative for many who have long waited for technology to catch up with the sheer force of the human imagination.

Early adopters of virtual worlds were creative pioneers, learning how to inhabit and collaborate on one another’s ideas in three dimensions. This is particularly attractive for sophisticated, tech-savvy employees of companies such as IBM, often working in remote locations without colleagues on site.

I first became aware of IBM’s presence in virtual worlds on November 10, 2006, after I completed six months of work on an investigative report, “Big, Easy Money: Disaster Profiteering on the American Gulf Coast.” The field of journalism was at the beginning of its own massive, technology-driven shift, creating as many dilemmas as opportunities. Innovation doesn’t happen just by peeking over the edge of a competitor’s cubicle to see sketches on the drawing board, and the saturation of industry-wide confusion and panic began to far outstrip progress.

I was married not to the idea of print, but rather the profession of storytelling. Instead of documenting what had already gone wrong, I wanted to contribute to finding solutions to economic and cultural crises and document those stories. As I mulled my options, I had no idea that I would soon discover a virtual world in which it would be possible to create a new reality.

Over lunch that fateful day, Clifford Pickover, a friend who works at IBM, asked me if I’d ever heard of Second Life®.

“Second Life®? What’s that?”

“In Second Life®, you can be anything or do anything,” he said. “You can live in a massive beach house, or in a tree house in the woods with beautiful stained glass windows, and you can create your own appearance, right down to the shape of your nose and the color of your eyes.”

He wrote a name down on a napkin and slid it my way. It contained the avatar name of IBM’s Chief Virtual Architect. By now, everybody at the table was listening intently. There was a chorus of questions: “What is this? There’s a place where you can do what?”

“Get in touch once you get in Second Life®,” he said as I looked down at the napkin.

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