Do Better Business in 3D

Companies should actively venture into virtual worlds, writes an IBM executive, who sees "incredible potential" as the technology improves

Noted science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said about new inventions: "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny…'"

Asimov's ideas on discovery might aptly describe the current feeling in Corporate America toward virtual worlds. Executives are both puzzled and intrigued by this technology, typically relegated to the gaming industry. About three years ago the IBM (IBM) Academy of Technology conducted a study on the potential impact of gaming technologies and applications on the IT industry. We have long known that one way to figure out where the IT industry is headed is to watch what's happening in supercomputing and research communities.

The study essentially said that similar attention should now be paid to the world of games, and it strongly recommended that companies mount serious efforts to understand the implications of games and related online virtual environments on IT applications, products, and services.

The findings are all the more relevant now. Sure, some consider the technology frivolous, and the environments a bit goofy-looking. But remember the early days of the Web. Virtual-world technology will get better, access will improve, and virtual worlds—and the 3D, immersive, and social environments they enable—will become an increasingly pervasive part of the existing Web.

Transformative Power

We see incredible potential for this "3D Internet" to transform customer experiences, improve business processes, drive collaboration, enrich commerce and transactions, and enable 3D modeling and simulations so businesses can better understand their markets.

This isn't just about living in Second Life or playing sophisticated games. It's about building platforms where serious business can be conducted, including 3D intranets, private business worlds, application-specific platforms, and tools for business transformation.

Why are virtual worlds appealing to so many people now? In recent years, the Web has become a more collaborative platform through the increased use of social networking and Web 2.0 capabilities. In that light, it should not surprise us that people have gravitated to virtual worlds not only to play games, but also to visually communicate and interact, conduct meetings, teach classes, or just hang out.

Handling Information Overload

The bottom line is that we are struggling both personally and professionally to cope with the massive amounts of information coming at us—be it from TV, the Internet, print publications, or any number of other sources. We need a way to cope with this amazing information explosion.

One such way may be advanced visualization technology, borne out of the scientific and supercomputing communities to make sense of massive amounts of information. Those communities have used visualization to move from the tedious process of reading through reams of data to actually "seeing" such data-intensive processes as weather patterns, the complexities of the human heart, and the design of the slickest new BMW.

The ability for us to visualize complex data in a way the human brain can comprehend is now emerging in the form of virtual worlds. It may just hold promise for helping us all deal with information overload and complex processes in business.

Social Circle

But, virtual worlds aren't just about visualizations; they also provide highly social, interactive environments that are like real life in that they connect people who cannot be together—from all over the world, and from different cultures and environments. The combination of these two paradigms—rich visualization and immersive social interactions—is proving a powerful tool for business, in a number of areas.

We at IBM are working on applications of virtual worlds for business. In the area of commerce, we're working with clients such as Sears (SHLD) and Circuit City (CC) to explore and experiment with the application of virtual worlds to online stores. We're devising immersive environments for meetings that are more like real life, re-creating real-world events and destinations, and providing cultural and interactive experiences for people who can't make it to the real places. And when it comes to education, we're using 3D models to simplify complex topics, build interactive training modules, and enhance rehearsals and role playing.

Vouching for Virtual

Here are just a few applications we've seen from other organizations:

At the University of California, a professor of psychiatry is using Second Life to simulate and experience schizophrenia in an effort to more deeply study and understand the disease and how to best treat those afflicted with it. The Centers for Disease Control has created virtual clinics to train emergency workers who might be called to rapidly set up medical facilities in a national crisis.

And other organizations are developing prototypes to explore what might be possible. For example, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has built a simplified oil rig to demonstrate how virtual worlds can help in the development of education and workflow optimization of process-based industries.

Early virtual worlds such as Second Life have demonstrated that these highly visual, immersive environments satisfy two key aspects of being human: our innately social and visual natures. As these worlds become more integrated with the current Web we will see a transformation in business—both in how consumers interact with business and how employees inside of businesses interact with each other and broad communities.

Open Standards

To reach this future, we need to take some immediate and bold steps to ensure these platforms are viable for future use and development. Open standards must emerge so these virtual worlds connect and to ensure users can cross from one world to another, just like they can go from one Web page to another on the Internet today. We also need to better manage trust and identities to solve or mitigate many of the challenges that we face around illegal actions, inappropriate behavior, privacy, and security violations. It is clear that trust and identity management are base requirements for the equitable creation and transfer of business value.

For any meaningful impact on business and government to occur, it is also apparent that we must leverage the current business applications and data repositories—integrating these core mission systems into our virtual worlds, be they Web-built, Web-enabled, or legacy systems. This is mandatory for the widespread adoption and rapid dissemination of business capabilities. This integration will require the leverage of open standards and the significant reduction of interoperability challenges.

Finally, we need to aggressively drive the creation of more—and new—business applications to release the business values that can be accelerated by the use of these virtual worlds. The technology may not be perfect, but it will continue to improve. And the application to business and society will be limited only by what the best and brightest can imagine. It may not be an overnight "Eureka!" moment, but it will certainly be fun.