Interest in virtual worlds is growing, platforms are proliferating and virtual commerce continues to rise but there are several key steps needs to reach the next level: expanding awareness of virtual worlds uses, providing technical interoperability and establishing a financial payment network.
1. Marketing - virtual worlds are not just for recreation
Conceptually, there is a marketing problem. The popular belief, even by technology professionals, is that virtual worlds are exclusively for recreational use, and even more narrowly, that they are children's video games. This stems from three factors: the vast popularity of teen and pre-teen virtual worlds, the fact that this market segment is making the most money in the virtual worlds space and some high profile acquisitions like Club Penguin by Disney in Aug. 2007 for $700m. Maybe this is what happened with the wheel in Peru; it got defined as a children's toy early on and the greater extensibility of the technology went unrealized.
Enterprise Virtual Worlds
Virtual worlds are the natural evolution of the Internet and one of the biggest potential uses is for enterprise applications. Enterprise virtual world killer app #1 is videoconferencing. Companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on video-conferencing. This can all be replaced with the free infrastructure of virtual worlds, and even improves on the traditional methods as participants have higher levels of engagement and use virtual world workforce collaboration apps.
Enterprise virtual world killer app #2 is the application presentation layer. Virtual worlds are the obvious next generation front-end to any data application. Exponentially more information can be seen at a glance and perceived immediately through visual image rather than read and processed (example: Bashiba). Problem drill down and resolution is also quicker and more effective. Many companies are moving to virtual control centers as the front end to their data applications. IBM features green data centers for both internal and client use to provide lower-cost improved control over nationwide data centers and remote process administration (SLurl). Facilities manager Eolus integrates SAP in the back-end with virtual world platforms in the front-end, representing multiple dimensions of information in a 4-tier virtual map for optimized management of global operations.
Enterprise virtual world killer app #3 is eCommerce. Virtual worlds are the obvious next generation platform for eCommerce, with detailed visual representations of products available for inspection and avatar-based navigation instead of locating items through menus. This trend will strengthen as more cell phones are smart phones and mobile virtual worlds clients are available.
For more information and images of Enterprise Virtual Worlds applications, please see Slides 16-22 of this presentation.
The 60+ existing virtual worlds platforms are isolated silos (lists of virtual world platforms: Virtual Worlds Review and VirtualWorldsNews). It is as if every website used a different flavor of html and required a separate login identity. There are two levels of the interoperability challenge. First, export and import functionality needs to be standard between 3d modeling software programs (3DS Max, Maya, etc.) and into virtual worlds platforms. Second, avatars and inventory need to be portable across worlds. One idea is to have a namespace registry system and avatar servers like DNS servers. Open-source platforms like realXtend and OpenSimulator are starting to emerge but do not have the traffic of the vast established worlds like Second Life, There and Entropia Universe.
3. Micropayment Network
The third vital step in moving virtual worlds forward is the establishment of a micropayment network. The breadth and amount of activity could be substantial. The network would be like PayPal, spanning any and all gaming and virtual world platforms, and could also handle web-based and brick-and-mortar transactions. The regulatory hurdles are sizable particularly given the international dimension but one possibility could be harnessing the emerging cell phone payment networks for virtual world micropayments.