Conferencing and Market Research Services Get Second Life

secondlifeDepending on who you ask, Second Life is either an early pioneer in what promises to be a brave new virtual world of peer-to-peer interaction, rife with business opportunities, or a non-starter that got way too much hype way too early and won’t live up to any of it, no matter how long we wait. I believe my fellow WWD writer Aliza Sherman is very much on the former side of the fence. I’ll only say that Second Life’s rise hasn’t been as meteoric as Twitter’s, for instance, but that I still see potential for it to grow.

Yesterday, a couple of new tools were announced that made me stop and reconsider how much of that potential is actually being capitalized upon, how soon the virtual world’s appeal might broaden, and what that might mean for working on the web. The services in question are a Virtual Conference Centre and Real Time Research, joint venture projects by Second Life development vets Rivers Run Red and consulting group Futuresource.

Virtual conferencing and meetings are gaining popularity as companies look for ways to cut costs, and travel budgets are a prime target for cutting excess. I’m fine with conference calls, and they’re a necessary part of internet commuting, but I’ve yet to try a virtual world-based meeting. For me, the 3D character avatar still belongs to the province of video games, so I’m resistant to the idea of bringing business into the equation.

Perhaps that’s the point, though, when we’re talking about a virtual convention centre. Part of the appeal of attending conventions is the appeal of the socializing that goes on outside of business. And as an independent contractor, I don’t often find my travel expenses comped, so I could definitely see myself agreeing to be a guest speaker or a panel member at a Second Life convention that I would not attend in the real world. It would allow you to build your personal brand in places and to audiences you wouldn’t otherwise reach, which is always a good thing.

Real Time Research, the second service to be launched, presents a more interesting and innovative use of the Second Life world. It is intended to provide a way for companies to test and receive feedback on new products and design in real time. Second Life is a great environment for this sort of thing because it allows a wide (or selective) audience quick, easy, and reliable access to 3D product models.

This sort of real-time feedback environment could allow small firms and even independent designers to get the benefit of focus groups without the cost, which is generally prohibitive for those of us working on this end of the spectrum. The problem might be attracting users from useful demographics to give you feedback, or to take the activity seriously at all. In-world incentives could help to remedy that problem, as could services that allow Second Life users to sign up to become part of an active testing pool.

The tools may not in and of themselves necessarily represent firsts for virtual world applications, but the fact that they’re being sold to enterprise users through a third-party vendor is. It means that at least some companies are beginning to market Second Life collaboration SaaS solutions the same way many others did when Web 2.0 started really taking off.

It’s definitely an option I’ll float to clients looking for these types of tools, especially if they’re open to innovative or non-traditional approaches. My only worry is that users unfamiliar with Second Life might require a separate orientation for both the virtual world, and the tool itself, and might find the environment distracting to the task.

Would you recommend/use this kind of service for your or your client’s business? Do you currently use Second Life for web work, or can you see yourself doing so in the future? From a developer’s standpoint, what do you think about the viability of Second Life as market to sell these kinds of applications? Is there enough interest to justify the effort?