IBM Dives Deep Into Virtual Realms

Conference host Scott Hebner, IBM Rational's vice president of marketing and strategy, conducted much of his presentation in avatar form, leading a guided tour of some of IBM's Second Life hot spots and projects. Stops included IBM's sprawling virtual headquarters, the immersive showroom it built for Circuit City, and the tennis courts where IBM enabled a near-real-time simulation of Australian Open matches.

"IBM led the world in e-business, and you know we're going to do the same in v-business," Hebner's avatar told the audience.

What partners and customers actually want from "v-business" leaders remains an open question, though. IBM heavily promoted Second Life throughout the Rational conference: it simulcast sessions, set up kiosks with Second Life software preinstalled, distributed beginner's guides to help newbies, and showcased its Codestation developers' island, which hosts an open-source code library and robot coding competition.

Despite the Second Life saturation campaign, virtual turnout was low. IBM's Codestation island was sparsely populated on Tuesday, and the designated greeter at its flagship IBM Business Center -- Business Advisor "Donnie Lundquist" -- said no one from the Rational conference had dropped by.

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Partner reactions tended toward bemused curiosity. "At [IBM's] Impact show a few weeks ago, it was all about Second Life," said WebLayers Vice President of Marketing Dan Potter, who has never set foot in the virtual world. "I guess I'll have to drink the Kool-Aid and make an avatar."

Several attendees said they hadn't heard of Second Life before the show and were alerted to its existence by IBM's evangelism. Mike Short, a technology enablement specialist with IBM partner Praxis Engineering, a services firm in Annapolis Junction, Md., was intrigued at some of IBM's virtual offerings, such as event simulcasts.

"[The keynote] was my first time actually seeing it," Short said. "I'm definitely going to check it out."

A number of top IT vendors, including Cisco Systems and Sun Microsystems, have staked out Second Life land and hosted events in the virtual world, but IBM is unique in the depth of its commitment. In addition to its extensive development work in the realm, IBM has devoted serious staffing resources: its Second Life headquarters has IBM representatives on call to greet customers 12 hours day. Even press-reclusive CEO Sam Palmisano has swung by to headline an event or two.

IBM's employee ranks are split between Second Life true believers and those sucked along in their wake. IBM Fellow and Rational Chief Scientist Grady Booch is one of the company's highest-profile and most enthusiastic Second Life proponents -- his peers say he can be found in the realm most of his working hours. Kept away from the Rational conference for the second year in a row (last year, open-heart surgery was his the reason; this time, the happier distraction is his 30th wedding anniversary), Booch sent his Second Life avatar along to make a few remarks in his place.

One IBM public-relations staffer who created an avatar solely so she could track Booch down when she needs him hopes the realm will live up to its potential as an effective collaborative environment for working with colleagues and clients: "With his heart condition, he really does have to cut back on travel," she commented.

But IBM faces an uphill battle if it hopes to help elevate Second Life from a toy technology into a genuine business environment. Remote collaborators seeking real-time interaction already have a myriad of options, including audio, video and Web conferencing, chat programs and instant messaging.

Second Life's biggest selling point is its novelty. For those who enjoy tinkering with new technologies, it's undeniably fun to explore virtual landscapes, "flying" through cityscapes with a few button clicks and socializing with fellow visitors. But for those who don't get a geeky thrill from interacting via a cartoon avatar, the Second Life interface hinders collaboration more than it helps.

Show attendee Melanie McKean, a development lead the Westfield Group insurance agency, had never heard of Second Life before the Rational conference, but IBM's promotion of the realm piqued her curiosity.

Having missed the conference's keynotes, she created a Second Life account and hopped over to IBM's Codestation to see if she could catch the presentations there -- but after a fair bit of fiddling around, she still couldn't figure out how to view the video. Her attempts to find a more experienced guide also ended in frustration.

"I've asked about ten people and they've all said 'no, I've never been on,'" McKean said. "It's interesting to play with, but it would have been easier if they just had a link on the developerWorks Web site."

IBM has a batch of upcoming Second Life presentations and events on its calendar, and Rational developer and ISV relations program director Brett Hansen said he's in discussions with several partners about using Second Life for training, marketing or collaboration. But when pressed, he admits the outreach has all been on IBM's side -- not a single partner has approached IBM seeking Second Life interaction.

"I think it's great, but honestly, I haven't figured it out either," Hansen said. "We're experimenting. This is something we've never done before."