Today some 6,000 IBMers are linked in virtual worlds. One of the more intriguing applications has been crafted by the Blue Gene research team, which is developing supercomputing programs that, among other things, explore biological processes. I (well, my avatar) met with Blue Gene avatars from multiple continents to discuss how virtual worlds enable them to collaborate more efficiently. They described with enthusiasm a recent presentation on protein folding, the process by which critical molecules in the body take and maintain their shape, or, if they fail to, produce such diseases as Alzheimer’s and mad cow. During this virtual world session, IBM scientists generated a three-dimensional molecule of protein on the screen and slowly depicted its evolution into its final form. This representation of protein formation then became the centerpiece for ongoing research in different time zones at the same time, blurring the line between a physical and virtual lab.
Indeed, modeling difficult-to-illustrate ideas and products and sharing them with prospective clients or internal teams is one of the more attractive aspects of virtual worlds to companies. Northrop Grumman Corporation, for example, has used this technology to generate mock versions of expensive and complex — and highly classified — defense equipment planned or under development. Using a virtual network, Northrop has been able to keep customers closely involved in the design and engineering of critical projects and to lead simulated operational training sessions.
The employment search firm Manpower Inc. is among the most innovative organizations with a high comfort level in the virtual world. The company began using Second Life in 2007 to reach and organize people who had already been initiated into the virtual world, or who were interested in starting to. “The virtualization of the labor market is a key issue as the world of virtual work is morphing into something that will become an integral part of how companies get work done,” says Manpower CEO Jeffrey Joerres.
In Manpower’s Second Life office, thousands of visitors and job seekers from more than 50 countries have already experienced avatar-to-avatar communication through employment fairs, live events, and seminars. Manpower even helps applicants learn how to become more businesslike in their new, unfamiliar avatar form, including lessons on dressing their virtual alter egos in professional attire. What’s more, traditionally marginalized segments of the workforce, such as the physically disabled, often find that biases and prejudices against them are minimized in a virtual environment where avatars, in theory at least, have no disadvantages.
Despite successes in the corporate world, virtual environments are still probably some years away from mainstream acceptance. In August 2008, research firm Gartner Inc. said in a report on emerging technologies that it will take at least two to five years before virtual worlds become prevalent for business applications. By then, companies may not have much of a choice: The need to cut travel, training, and meeting costs, gain substantial access to global talent, trim back internal redundancy, and increase communications among departments that were once isolated from one another will force organizations to find new ways (and new worlds) to do old tasks.