It's the much-anticipated keynote speech at JavaOne 2007. One of Sun Microsystems' senior leaders takes the stage as his colleague flies around the audience fielding questions. I'm sitting next to Darth Vader, and the guy in front of me is blocking my view with his oversized wings. A couple of seats down from me, a participant is hunched over, apparently in a deep sleep.
Some things never change, even in the virtual world of Second Life.
The highly technical topic of this particular address couldn't possibly be less interesting for a non-programmer like me. If this was a regular old Webinar, they'd have lost me with the first sentence. However, in the Second Life environment, I'm drawn in. Engaged. Compelled.
As the Second Life experience becomes richer and the application diffuses more widely, it's hard to imagine how existing voice- and videoconferencing can survive. This "metaverse" takes interaction and collaboration to unprecedented levels. And it's redefining training, from telling and testing to interacting with engaged minds in an immersive 3-D environment.
Second Life isn't your father's two-dimensional Web, that's for sure. It's Web 3-D. Don't let the video game look deceive you. There's no purpose, no score, no winners, and no levels of difficulty. Second Life appropriates the world-building and open-endedness of massively multiplayer games, but that's where the similarities end. Its more than 8 million registered "residents" chat with friends, attend book readings, role play, take classes, and make love. Much has been made of the sleaze in Second Life, but it also has virtual cathedrals, mosques, and synagogues.
If you're the last person in your office to get an avatar, it's time to visit www.secondlife.com to sign up for a free account and download the client software and create your own cyber self. Be sure to make some time for this part—creating your own digital alter ego can be the most fun you've had all week. You might opt for a younger physically enhanced version of yourself or an anthropomorphic animal, called "furries." Never has the adage that "on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog" been more true. But in Second Life, a person can also be a dog—or a lynx, which is the guise of Intel Software Solutions Group's Paul Steinberg in Second Life. He leads the company's third-party developer meetings in Second Life.
Before you get serious about teleporting to one of the training venues in Second Life (see sidebar for examples of training destinations), get a little practice by investigating some social sites. Search for "Barcelona," for instance, where you can get a cup of coffee, dance a little salsa, and try to make sense of the flurry of European languages spoken by its diverse clientele. If you want to get more serious, you can join training colleagues on Thursdays from noon to 1 p.m. EST at the Gronstedt Group's "Train for Success." You'll soon see firsthand why the sprawling, explosively vibrant Second Life world has been the topic of endless articles in the business press in the last year, from the cover of Business Week to a treatise in Harvard Business Review.
After a few minutes in Second Life, you'll find any regular Website to be just a collection of flat pages. It's hard to imagine why any company would wait until it hits 100 million residents before it starts learning in "Web 3-D." Consider these facts:
- Gartner Group estimates that 80 percent of active Internet users will be in non-gaming virtual worlds such as Second Life by the end of 2011.
- IBM is investing millions of dollars in 25 SL islands, and a bevy of Fortune 100 companies such as Sun, Dell, Intel, Adidas, Toyota, GM, and more are all there.
- Hundreds of universities, including Harvard and INSEAD, teach classes in Second Life for credit.
- My native Sweden just opened an embassy in Second Life.
The ability to visualize objects in 3-D is perhaps the most obvious appeal of Second Life training. Car companies can let dealers kick the tires and drive a new car. Pharmaceutical companies can take doctors on a journey through the veins of the body to explain a new cardiovascular medication. And computer companies can magnify a chip or minimize a city to explain the flow of bites and bytes. Participants and walk or fly around and inside 3-D objects.
But for all the razzle-dazzle of its 3-D modeling capabilities, Second Life is ultimately about social networking. The ability to get together remotely to talk, role play, interact with experts and peers, and share experiences and frustrations is the real appeal of Second Life and other virtual worlds. Just talk straight into your headset, and other participants in your avatar's surroundings will hear your voice in 3-D. As you move around, the sound seems to change direction, all at an extremely high sound quality. You also can chat or IM, gesture, and change appearance. IBM uses virtual worlds to train new sales reps in China to connect with colleagues and role=play sales conversations.
Which companies should conduct training in the virtual world? Any company that is serious about attracting and keeping talented new employees from the new generation of digital natives. Virtual worlds and games are as familiar to them as television, film, or books are to the older "digital immigrant" generation. The new breed of game-savvy and socially networked employees was born after the PC revolution and want to be engaged, in control, with little patience for the century-old instructor-centric teaching model. With the world’s knowledge right at the tip of their thumbs, they require their learning programs to be more engaging, more fun, more interactive, and more mobile.
Smart companies are catering to the new generation workers with a new suite of emerging electronic technologies that include podcasting, wikis, blogs, video-based simulations, widgets, and social network sites, and now virtual worlds, all of which are changing the face of workplace learning.
Sidebar: Educational Destinations in Second Life
- The New Media Consortium, a collective of more than 200 colleges, universities, museums, and corporations. sl.nmc.org
- Train for Success, Gronstedt Group's virtual classroom in a street car. www.gronstedtgroup.com
- INSEAD, a virtual campus of the European business school. slurl.com/secondlife
- The Greater IBM Connection, one of IBM’s 25 Second Life islands dedicated to learning. www.ibm.com
Anders Gronstedt, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org), a.k.a., "anders Wildcat" in Second Life, is president of the Gronstedt Group, which helps companies such as Dell, Jamba Juice, Volvo Cars, Ericsson, and FedEx improve sales and workplace performance in Second and Real Life.