Dan Parks, President/Creative Director for Corporate Planners Unlimited, Inc, has created a first-of-its-kind virtual convention center in Second Life. He recently gave me a tour and I will admit – this experiment is an example of extraordinary vision that could only have come from someone who had spend 20 years in the event industry. You owe it to yourself to try this out at your first opportunity. I will try to explain what it is and why I think you need to see it.
By the way – the image above features the exhibit hall on the right, the convention rooms on the left, and two skyscraper towers in the background. The “smoke” is actually low-flying clouds. See the thumbnails at the bottom of this post for the really high-res shots I took.
First, since there are still many people who have no idea what Second Life is, let me expend a paragraph on that topic. Non-Newbies can skip ahead. Second Life is a computer-generated world that you access through a free downloadable application – the Second Life Browser. Using this application, you can create a graphical 3D representation of yourself – an avatar – that you manipulate like a puppet within the second life world. It doesn’t have to look like you (it can be a different gender or even species) but it is what you will look like in this second life. Using this avatar, you walk or fly around this fantasy world, meeting other users, experiencing wild places, chatting, playing games, etc. It’s like a video game except it isn’t nearly as much fun. In fact, there’s very little to do in Second Life that the average working professional would find interesting. Companies like The Gap have spend big bucks setting up virtual stores and virtual hotels in Second Life only to find a lack of participants and a similar lack of real money. Ironically, the company most vocal about not wasting money in Second Life, IBM, is also one of its biggest investors, participants, and technology partners.
Two significant things have changed within Second Life that have changed my perception of it’s value for marketing and event professionals. First, a Massachusetts company called Vivox has introduced a voice chat technology that enables Second Life users to converse with other users by simply talking through a standard computer microphone or headset. It’s a free call anywhere in the world. You can talk privately person to person or talk openly in crowds. This is a surprisingly cool ability. As you walk near other people in Second Life you can join their voice conversations. This means that, in a business meeting, you can introduce yourself and network with other attendees. It is the most face-to-face experience I have ever seen online.
The second significant change within Second Life is the construction of Virtualis by Dan Parks and his team of hired guns – architects, landscapers, and designers. They have built a monumental convention center and meeting facility within Second Life and it will soon be open for business. It would take far more text than a mere blog post would stomach in order to fully explain all there is to see and do at Virtualis, so I will stick to the bullet points and get to why this is important. First, Virtualis has a massive virtual exhibit floor, complete with large 3D exhibits. You will be able to watch streaming videos, examine product information, and talk “face to face” with booth attendees. They have even come up with the ability to webcast live from the real world, using any standard webcam, into these exhibits for the purpose of product launches, product demos, and presentations. No other virtual trade show comes close to this level of functionality, attendee mingling, and user experience.
Virtualis also has a large ballroom and many smaller meeting rooms, all found within a beautiful glass building lined with waterfalls and other interesting visual elements. In the ballroom, Parks has provided a variety of meeting support services including a dance floor, a follow spot, podium, and presentation areas. Two nearby skyscrapers are loaded with meeting rooms and areas dedicated to the press. In fact, an outdoor ampitheater is equipped with multiple live virtual video cameras that can actually webcast a press conference out of second life to the real world.
Other features include a massive yacht full of meeting rooms (that may be private – I’m not sure), an outdoor learning facility with all sorts of special effects and presentation capabilities, and a koi pond.
Because you can participate in group activities, network and speak to other visitors, give and receive video and slide presentations, and browse exhibit halls, this is a fairly complete meeting experience. You just have to remember to find food in the real world while your avatar sits in a hot tub on the yacht.
It isn’t perfect, however. As I mentioned in previous posts, Second Life is an unstable and rapidly growing platform. It is not ready for you to abandon your sales meeting in Fiji to save money by having it at Virtualis. This is an experiment. You can book 100 people or so to attend an experimental summit or exercise here. Some will have trouble connecting, and some will have trouble navigating. It is a very new and very demanding technology. It is, first and foremost, a vision of what can and probably will be done with the next generation of Second Life or a competing platform. If the underlying technology were bullet-proof, and if the user interface were more intuitive, and if everyone had the necessary computer horsepower and bandwidth – then I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this as a real meeting solution. All the pieces are there. For now, I recommend seeing it, experiencing it, and keeping a close eye on it. Book a meeting there with nothing but your most adventurous audience and enjoy it with your virtual guests – but expect the few problems I mentioned. And when this technology is robust and real, you can say you’ve been “with it” since the beginning.