Here come Virtual World Intranets… Seriously

Online worlds on the Internet? That’s so last month ago. Judging by recent initiatives from Sun and IBM, the latest trend is a corporate-controlled, business-centric virtual world architected for internal use only– call it the intranet metaverse. In Sun’s case, it’s MPK20, a “a virtual 3D environment in which employees can accomplish their real work, share documents, and meet with colleagues using natural voice communication.”

The idea is to bring remote workers in Sun’s worldwide offices together into a single embodied space, “where the spacial layout of the 3D world coupled with the immersive audio provides strong cognitive cues that enhance collaboration.” (Via 3pointD, where blogger Mark Wallace has worthwhile commentary.) In IBM’s case, it’s a rough-and-ready 3D environment created by their Innovate Quick team, using the Torque graphics engine from Garage Games.

“The project team is exploring ways to scale, and also applying different models of operation,” Ian Hughes of IBM’s UK branch tells me. “We are building a user base of interested users and developers as part of our CIO office technology adoption program.” Hughes spearheaded IBM’s early explorations of Second Life as a private development lab for the future 3D Internet, where the team creates cool applications like a universal language translator for avatars.

In SL, Ian goes by the unlikely Resident name epredator Potato, and looks less like an IT specialist than an alien hunter the Governor of California memorably dubbed, “One ugly mother****er.” The trouble with using Second Life for IBM business, writes Hughes, is that it’s inaccessible behind Big Blue’s firewall [some intranet, internal applications cannot be reached from Second Life], and they were looking to bolster the companies existing internal communication channels. “What we need is the ability to gather some people together and use the human aspects of the avatar interaction to be more effective in our communications.”

While some Net pundits have quickly dismissed Fortune 500 interest in virtual worlds as mere marketing hype, it’s projects like these which suggest that high tech companies are serious about their potential to transform the Internet. If they privately come up with new protocols and technology that adds real value to the way they do business, the future of the broader Net as a 3D medium is all but insured. By the same token, they may just end up adding another level of aggravation to the conference call.