It’s coming up to a year since I last wrote on Second Life for Crikey and the hype is well and truly dead. What’s left standing is a slow burning momentum led by educators and business, both looking for returns on their investment, whether it be intellectual or financial. Ironically, with the hyperbole around virtual worlds mostly gone, some real world outcomes are being demonstrated, partly because of, rather than in spite of, the current economic climate.

First, there’s a growing recognition that virtual worlds can provide a damn engaging meeting space that can save money compared to either videoconferencing or interstate flights. A cheesy example of one corporate offering can be found here.

Meanwhile, virtual goods are outstripping sales of real world goods in some markets. They’re relatively cheap to produce — the design phase may take just as long but there’s no manufacturing required unless you want to sell real-world spin-offs. There’s well over fifty million dollars Australian traded within Second Life alone each month.

When you factor in the virtual goods available on social networking platforms like Facebook, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry that’s growing by the week — something most corporates are at least getting some awareness of. Teen virtual world Habbo Hotel recently reported fifty million Euros in revenue from sales of virtual furniture and clothes during 2008. That’s not chicken feed by any measure.

And it’s just got a little easier for business in virtual worlds with this week’s announcement by Second Life creators Linden Lab that they’ll be selling an off-the-shelf version designed for use by enterprises behind their firewalls. Virtual meetings, product prototyping and virtual goods development will all be able to occur without needing to lock down areas on the public Second Life grid for fear of an avatar dressed as a p-nis swearing in front of a key client.

There’s a bunch of other virtual world offerings for business as well, to the point that specific business functions can be catered for. Need to do some structured team building with employees spread across the country or world? NoviCraft offers just that and it’s one of a few.

Then there’s the army of PhD students and veteran educators using virtual worlds and in the process laying down some solid theoretical underpinnings for both the opportunities and challenges of virtual worlds. There’s a growing body of work and a significant amount of it moves beyond the esoteric to refuting some of the ignorant claims around people needing to get a first life. There are demonstrable benefits in a range of spheres, along with plenty of pitfalls that you’d expect with any online environment. Worlds like Second Life remain primarily a research and development environment, but the pioneer days are essentially over. Hell, Telstra just celebrated their two-year anniversary in Second Life — it doesn’t get much more passe than that.

The only true laggards in the virtual world sphere are Australian governments. Stephen Conroy’s not coped with Twitter, let alone 3D virtual reality. Perhaps when RuddNet is complete in 2017 we’ll see our ministers in-world, buying some new shoes or g-nitals for their avatar.

Peter Fray

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