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Innovating into the new year: Virtual Environements Key Areas for Business to foucs on

January 9, 2009

Virtual environments vary widely in their appearance and functionality, but they share several defining characteristics:

* Shared space. Many people can participate at the same time in the same common space.
* Immediacy. Interaction takes place in real time. For example, when you walk forward, the people with whom you are interacting will see you walk forward at the same time.
* Immersive visual environments. Worlds depict physical space, ranging in style from two-dimensional “cartoon” imagery to more immersive 3D environments. Many of the popular virtual worlds simulate some aspects of real life, such as gravity, topography, and architecture.
* Personalization. People can alter, develop, build, or submit customized objects that are seen or used in the world.
* Persistence. Life in these worlds continues regardless of whether or not individual users are logged in.
* Socialization and community. Worlds allow and encourage the formation of in-world social groups—teams, guilds, clubs, cliques, house-mates, and neighborhoods.

Develop and Align Objectives

What are you trying to achieve with your virtual world campaign? Many organizations established virtual world outposts simply to say that they had done it. Most are reconsidering this strategy because it didn’t deliver any clear result. Prepare a list of campaign objectives and expected results. Identify objectives that are aligned with virtual world attributes. For example, virtual worlds are well suited to conveying a sense for space and environment, as well as facilitating lifelike personal interactions. If you find that your objectives don’t rely on attributes specific to virtual worlds, ask if other media might be better suited to your campaign.

Consider the Opportunity Cost

Operating a virtual world is rarely inexpensive. You may want to hire a virtual world specialist to help you construct avatars and buildings and to guide you in the intricacies of a particular world. Alternatively, you can spend time learning the tools and social conventions. In both cases, you’ll face a considerable learning curve and no guarantee that your campaign will attract supporters or achieve its objectives. Before beginning a virtual world campaign, chart the time and money you expect to spend on the project and ask if this expenditure makes sense for your organization. If you’re operating on a tight budget and need measurable results, your resources might be better used elsewhere.
Make Partnerships

Instead of buying your own land and constructing buildings, you can save time and effort by partnering with like-minded organizations that already have a virtual world presence. Nonprofits interested in Second Life should contact the Nonprofit Commons (http://secondlife.techsoup.org); you may be able to lease an office or hold meetings with little investment.

Future-Proof Your Offering

Some virtual world platforms use proprietary software, and others are moving down the path toward more open-source strategies. Building an outpost in a proprietary virtual world means that your investment lies in the hands of a for-profit business. That company can change the rules—or go out of business—at any time, which is particularly common in the volatile realm of virtual world software. Be sure to investi- gate the company behind a virtual world before making an investment of time or resources, and to understand their software licensing options and future plans.

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