Workshop Offers Strategies for Future Virtual-World Developers

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Bloomington, Ind. — June 3
Companies have spent millions to connect with consumers using video games, virtual worlds and other immersive environments, and failed miserably because they did not understand how to use the technology to achieve their goals.

“A lot of people think you can just put these places together overnight because you can get an island in Second Life and fairly soon start to put buildings and stuff up,” said Lee Sheldon, assistant professor of telecommunications at Indiana University and the designer of 20 video games. “It's far more complicated than that.”

With an estimated 17 million users in English-speaking virtual world games alone, they are communications outlets that corporations and educators must take seriously. Sheldon and Edward Castronova, another professor in IU's Department of Telecommunications, have organized an intensive, weeklong workshop for businesses, educators and researchers on the principles of virtual-world construction.

“My sense is that the typical organization wastes two years and $2 million on its first virtual world effort,” Castronova said. “They don't even reinvent the wheel. It's more like they go through the 16 versions of square wheels that don't work. Lee and I keep getting phone calls from people trying to avoid this. So we decided we should just do a workshop.”

Castronova is an expert on the economies of large-scale online games and his academic publications on the topics include two books: Synthetic Worlds and Exodus to the Virtual World.

VW2 (Virtual World Workshop)
will be Aug. 3-7 on the IU Bloomington campus, with support from the College of Arts and Sciences. The program is intended for technology developers at companies and academic institutions who wish to use virtual world technology to achieve their communication and engagement goals. Until July 15, registration will cost $2,750. After July 15, registration will increase to $3,150.

Participants will have opportunities to pitch and refine their ideas, guided by experts in the field, and take back a viable plan for building a living virtual-world designed to meet the needs of their companies and institutions. They'll also learn about engines powering these worlds, such as Vivity, Wonderland and Metaplace. There will be separate tracks for business and academe.

“We will help them identify what their real goals are and then help them pick what's the best road to travel to get there,” Sheldon said.

Also involved in the conference as advisers are Leighton Read and Byron Reeves, the co-authors of the upcoming book Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete. Other members of the advisory board are Raph Koster, president of Metaplace Inc., and Rich Vogel and Gordon Walton, co-studio directors of Bioware.

Vogel, who also will be one of the event's keynote speakers, has been doing game development for 15 years, most recently the Star Wars Galaxies. Ron Meiners, developer relations director of Multiverse and the second keynote speaker, will work with participants to explain how virtual worlds are ongoing communities and not simply products.

Mistakes frequently made by companies include creating “virtual vending machines,” where users are directed to an online mall to buy real-world products.

“We're used to eBay and Amazon to get stuff. We don't need to go to a virtual world that is owned by a soft drink company and order a six-pack when we can go down to the 7-Eleven,” Sheldon said. “The reason people use Amazon and eBay is they provide something that brick and mortar can't, and we're doing the same thing with these (immersive environment) Web sites.”

Another common blunder is to direct users to a virtual visit of their corporate headquarters, which “isn't that interesting to their customers,” he added.

Virtual worlds are increasingly being seen by corporations as both social and collaborative arenas. They are places where meetings can take place, involving people who otherwise would be geographically disconnected.

“Rich media experiences, which are video and audio immersive, make for an almost equivalent to being able to sit in a room with people physically,” said Phoebe Elefante, a telecommunication graduate student who is helping to organize the event. “A virtual space is a less costly, more environmentally responsible substitute for an annual meeting of a multinational corporation.”

The organizers say it is vital that corporations develop effective strategies involving immersive technologies. Advertisers are leaving the printed page of newspapers and have not yet found banner ads on Web pages to be effective. People are socially engaged on the Internet and virtual worlds are a part of this. $594 million was invested in 63 different virtual world-related companies in 2008, including $101 million in the fourth quarter alone.

“What virtual worlds can do, if the purpose is well-defined and the execution follows that in a logical way, is engage people,” Elefante added. “That's the magical experience that both academics and corporations are looking for right now in a world that is saturated by digital media.”

Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter and other Web 2.0 services likely will become integrated into them as well, and could offer further gateways for branding and reinforcing internal corporate culture.

Sheldon said there no longer is such thing as a generation gap in corporate America when it comes to understanding immersive technological applications.

“We're all elderly. Anyone born from the mid-70s on is part of the computer generation and that's quite a while ago. There are people who are adapters of that who have grey hair,” he said, “but there is that resistance in companies of people who don't get it. The point is that they will send someone to us who either gets it, or who wants to, and we will help them take back the flag and plant it in the soil.”

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