Virtual Reality


Birth of a New Evo(revo)lution:

Communication expands into levels of complete experience. There is no question that virtual reality will transform marketing strategy, and consequently visual tools. The question is how will this evolve? What are the challenges, barriers, and perceptions that need to be addressed? How does this affect design?

Now that the infancy of this new medium is moving into childhood, the early developers are questioning its direction and use. Some of their expectations have been realized, some dashed. And there are surprises for businesspeople. No where, as in real life, is this better expressed than at the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit Commons in Second Life possesses about 80 resident organizations, serving 1600 visitors a month (out of the 2 million current avatars). There is a meeting every Friday morning, very well attended, of representative avatars discussing advances, tools, and comparing experiences. (Also see “Extend Graphic, Expand Experience” that discusses what this means for nonprofits.)

While attending sessions, doing a lot of research, listening to lectures from developers, talking to those doing business, here is how Second Life is being used, in the order of popularity:

spiral bullet1. Entertainment. Most avatars are hanging out in hubs to meet people. Then they whisk new friends off to gorgeous tropical islands, teleporting like on Star Trek! Clubs, dancers, and parties are very popular with this crowd. Sex is big business—just like in real life. However, this is easy to avoid. At first, it can be annoying but after learning how to find areas of interest, it is no longer an issue. Avoiding the pick-up places is the same as staying out of bars. Those with a purpose quickly learn to bypass the riff-raff.

spiral bullet2. Make friends. More important than partying, the technology really supports a friendship interchange with others. Granted that most of the 2 million avatars are present for personal reasons, the ability to make international contacts in unparalleled. I have a “friend” in South America (who doesn’t speak English), one in Germany (who speaks English better than I do), and a friend in Canada (who speaks tech), helping me to learn the ropes. It is possible to find kindred spirits to compare experience, knowledge, and resources. It is easier to be generous to someone in Brazil than competing shoulder-to-shoulder in Chicago! But design remains a profession where face-to-face meetings are essential to the creative process. I have yet—and look forward to trying—to use Skype as a replacement for a plane ticket and hotel room. I really want to try my hand at serving remote clients. It certainly opens up the world! Maybe that friend in Brazil is a competitor!

spiral bullet3. Shopping and identity. This is a huge growth area. Imagine replacing catalog-buying with virtual-buying. My avatar goes into the clothing store and “tries on” selections. Statistics report that the majority of people, particularly those in business, mold their avatars to look like themselves!! Mine is an idealized version of how I really look: blonder, younger, and taller. People put a lot of work into their avatars because it is like a business card—or even a logo! It represents level of sophistication. I bought a cool suit for my avatar out of Second Life dollars that I earned working in a SIM. I have challenged myself to spend no real cash but make my SL activities self-supporting! Yet most visitors buy “Linden Dollars” so that they can easily customize their avatars. It is a new form of self-expression that users embrace as an extention of themselves. Many say that it is truly like having a second identity. As I write this, my avatar is sleeping. But she is an entity, nonetheless! I can look into her big blue eyes (though mine are green) and almost feel there is an entity looking back! I embue her with qualities and have given her professional roles—some that I don’t possess.

spiral bullet4. New commerce. Commissioning custom avatar behaviors or appearances, developing real estate, and housing presentations are all huge businesses in Second Life. It is tempting to extend my Photoshop skills into areas of design I dare not venture into in RL—interior design and fashion. Already, I want more control over what my avatar wears! Too much of the fashion is for entertainment and not enough for business, so I can see that changing. I would love, for example, to wear designer labels that I can’t afford in RL—like a Chanel suit or an Yves St. Laurent gown! Users online pour a lot of real dollars into their identities—both individually and corporately. Virtual goods are very cheap because they involve scripting instead of manufacturing. Many visitors spend about $25 a month—allowing a lot of fun and shopping sprees. Compared to one evening out for dinner and a movie, few activities are so cheap for the amount of return!

spiral bullet5. Education. Both company training and university classes offer major growth to visitors and organizations. Staying home, yet sending my avatar to an auditorium, asking instructors questions, and expanding skills has never been more fun. Whenever fun is injected into instruction, great results occur. Witness how museum exhibits have become more involving—no longer a static viewing experience, but one that engages participation.

spiral bullet6. Fundraising. The avatars that attend the Friday morning Nonprofit Commons meeting illuminate the power of presentation that they didn’t anticipate. When setting up a location, the result is much like assembling a trade show booth. Presentations can be visited, explored, and customers served directly. But general business perception is that SL is for play and this makes investors nervous. They haven’t seen its potential—both in ability to expand audiences as well as its cost-effective development. This is technology that will effect everyone eventually! Take libraries as an examnple: Now I go online to my local library site where I research subjects. I walk to the building with a list ob books to find. In a virtual library, I can go to the shelves, see the book spines, pull downw the oines I want to consider, look at the overviews, select the ones I want to check out, go to the desk and have the library avatar help me. The real books can be picked up (or maybe delivered)—all faster and more fun than schlepping home with my armload. Nonprofits have found, however, that those investors who understand new opportunities in virtual reality are impressed with NP Commons, the commitments, and the results. So as a fundraising tool, SL opens new doors.

spiral bullet7. Exploring. Traffic behavior is different than the early adopters expected. Nonprofit Commons (as well as bookstores, museums, and galleries) have amazing features, but wandering around can be a rather lonely experience. As a visitor, I like that because I want to discover without being bothered. But for the organizations, they are disappointed if they expected more foot traffic. Instead of staffing, sites are used more like information portals that lead to activities, events, websites, and publications. Events bring the audience. So either no one is wandering, or there is a group. The Group functions of SL encourage micro-niches and targeted messages, as well as establish new kinds of professional communities built on an international viewpoint.

spiral bullet8. Role playing. These SIMs are worlds within this virtual world! Extremely popular, there are almost 70 role play environments listed, with at least that many unlisted. I participate in the Chicago Roaring 20s SIM—mimicking a low-tech experience through the highest tech! Although this has gaming aspects, it is really a community of 500 people—including a nightclub, concert hall, restaurants, city hall, stores, gallery, newspaper, residential neighborhoods, and police force. There is always action and there are business applications. The ability to test ideas in the protection of a private SIM, build skills, and even earn money offers practice to better perform in open business platforms.

spiral bullet9. Defining. It is important for every visitor to not lose site of purpose. For business, distractions of cool sites, fun activities, and expanding friendships can be very seductive (and time-consuming). But in real life, I don’t have time for a lot of friends. As in my real personal life, in SL, I have learned to be careful. It is super-easy to get into experience-comparing conversations. However, if I do want to meet an avatar of a certain profile or organization, I have learned to do my own brand of “hanging out” and communicating. There are social techniques not possible in real life! Nonetheless, when doing business, keeping focused away from distractions is just as difficult cyberally and physically!

Exposure to this new medium—even new marketplace— I am redefining what effective design means. How organizations implement, evaluate, and invest will round out this Study into the most exciting possiblities for communicators today! As a visual and verbal artist, I look forward to Second Life solving its two major challenges: difficulty to learn and action lag time. As long as the internet is on everyone’s screens, as long as fingers type vigorously on keyboards, as long as people look for friends, and as long as new frontiers draw new activities, virtual reality will take over many functions once experienced in real reality.

The Sebastian Study is completed in this blog. If you wish to know if your organization was considered, please visit and contact me; I will be happy to share the review ranking with you.

the end

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