Hey IT, Welcome to the Bverse

Consumers are the bleeding-edge testing grounds for any new Internet technology — e-mail, the Web, online video, blogging. After the public shakeout, businesses begin to eye their application. Virtual world technology is next in line for an enterprise upgrade.

On Wednesday, IBM and Linden Labs, creator of Second Life, announced an initiative to create open standards and interoperability allowing people to move their avatars and virtual goods from one world to another. The announcement followed a summit of 26 companies held at the Virtual Worlds Conference and Expo in San Jose this week.

Today, if you take the time to customize an avatar in one virtual world, it’s stuck there. If you want to participate in a different world, you need to start from scratch. Such customer lock-in used to be considered a good thing; so-called “stickiness” was highly desirable. But it has its downside, too. While Second Life avatars would be free to go elsewhere, portability would let users of other worlds more easily try out Linden’s metaverse — or anyone else’s.

The two companies hope to lead a consortium of software and services providers to make universal avatars, so that people could keep the same name, appearance, authentication and digital loot as they moved from one alternate realm to another. They also want to build a secure transaction platform so that people could buy and sell across worlds. Eventually, users could go from one world to another as easily as they load a new Web page.

Second Life is the highest-profile of the 3-D universe providers. Companies large and small have hosted business meetings and press conferences in Second Life, and having a virtual office or store there is a badge of coolness. Now, Linden is working to make its platform more open, so that it can extend its ability to work with businesses. In February, it open-sourced its world viewer, leading to a burst of creative third-party programming that made the metaverse accessible to a variety of hardware and OS.

But what is IBM doing in this, ‘space’? Plenty, actually.

In addition to its work with Linden Labs, Big Blue is also building its own virtual world platforms in collaboration with Activeworlds and Garage Games.

Entering the Bverse

IBM’s entry into the universe of virtual worlds for business — call it the Bverse — is part of a $100 million investment in innovation the company launched late in 2006. By early January 2007, more than 3,000 IBM employees had acquired their own avatars, and about 300 were routinely conducting company business inside Second Life.”

IBM also opened its huge Lotusphere conference to Second-Life attendees, a move executives said would illustrate how businesses can use lessons learned from virtual worlds to solve real-world business problems.

IBM is hosting private Activeworlds for several clients that want to test its usefulness for collaboration, said Colin Parris, IBM’s vice president for digital convergence. IBM calls these worlds behind firewalls “intraverses;” they’re the 3-D equivalent of an intranet.

“Quite a few of the clients we talk to want to have something behind the firewall, where they can interact with privacy and identify exactly who every participant is,” Parris said. But different technology platforms may be needed for different kinds of collaboration within the same enterprise. For example, an engineering firm might use one virtual world technology for doing intensely graphics-heavy design; but the high overhead of such an app would be overkill for simply hosting a meeting. Interoperability would enable an engineer to use the same authentication and avatar to move from the design-oriented world to the lighter-weight meeting environment.

IBM and Linden hope to find applications of virtual world technology in commerce, collaboration, education and training. They think that letting business applications and data repositories function in virtual worlds will spread commercial adoption.

Meanwhile, Qwaq is a startup that’s already offering an open-source, world-building platform designed for the enterprise. In September, Qwaq and Intel agreed to incorporate Intel’s Miramar, a 3-D information space technology originally developed by the chip giant’s research labs, into Qwaq Forums, the collaborative workspaces Qwaq provides. The hybrid will integrate desktop applications with the three-dimensional format. Intel already is using Qwaq Forums internally, and BP is doing a pilot.

“Interoperability is absolutely key,” said Qwaq CEO Greg Nuyens. “Large users are demanding this from the get-go.”

The technical work necessary to provide interoperability is only one job of the taskforce, according to Parris. First, he said, “We also have to get enough compelling business reasons in place, then we build the standards and protocols. Trust — we can technically do that now, but there also needs to be a measure of trust that there’s value in these “

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