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Virtual Hype Will Lead to Immersive Internet

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I was recently asked to speak at the Virtual Worlds Conference and Expo (VW08) in Los Angeles as part of a panel on virtual worlds in the workplace. One of my fellow panelists from PricewaterhouseCoopers was interviewed on CNBC while there. It was a great opportunity not only to share what Dell is doing, but also to listen and learn from many leaders in the field.

One of them, Reuben Steiger, noted in his presentation that virtual worlds and their sister industries are coming closer and closer together. One illustration of this happened this week at the Austin Game Developers Conference where they added the Worlds in Motion summit to talk about the intersection of games, business and virtual worlds.

While, much of the hype that surrounded virtual worlds in 2006/2007 – especially around Second Life where Dell has a presence – has died out, virtual worlds themselves continue to grow and new users continue coming to them at a slower, but steady pace. In January of 2008, the virtual world consultancy K Zero placed the total number of registered users of non-game virtual worlds at 173.6 million.

Most of those users are kids, tweens and teens. Major names such as Disney and MTV continue to expand the number of branded worlds they offer, and new players from Build-a-Bear to Precious Moments have debuted virtual worlds to extend their brands.

As the users of these worlds mature, they will come to expect to interact with friends, brands, employers and coworkers in immersive 3D environments. And, even before they are old enough to purchase real goods through virtual worlds, they will have spent an enormous amount of real money on virtual goods.

The conference was not all about kid-focused worlds, however. Collaboration was a word heard over and over from panelists, speakers and in hallway conversations. With the rising costs of business travel and a desire for corporations to reduce their impact on the environment, the promise of collaboration within virtual worlds will entice more users. With a Digital Nomad workforce, successful companies will need to find new ways to motivate and coordinate their employees.

Here at Dell, we have been experimenting with our own virtual collaboration. A group of geographically dispersed employees has been using our Second Life conference center for weekly team meetings. They say that they are more engaged in the meetings, that they enjoy being “seen” by their coworkers and that they feel more connected as a group.

We’re by no means the only company exploring this frontier. IBM used the conference to announce virtual world integration in their Lotus Sametime software, and Nortel has come out with an enterprise virtual world solution called Web Alive. These are all part of the beginning of the enterprise immersive internet that is to come.

So, whether used to reach out to the public in new ways or to work more collaboratively as a team, virtual worlds still hold opportunity after the hype has died.

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