Friday, April 25, 2008

vBusiness Expo day 2: Metanomics Special

After some initial delays, I was able to catch the vBusiness Expo session hosted by Metanomics' Robert Bloomfield, who had a very interesting discussion with Larry Johnson of the New Media Consortium.

After a short introduction, Robert interviews Larry, who, at the time of the interview, is somewhere on an airport! Larry recently recently testified for the US Congress hearing on virtual worlds.

NMC views SL generally as a venue for educational gaming; Larry proceeds to tell more about NMC's activities in world. Around this part of the meeting I suffered quite heavily from KI - Kids Interference - so I didn't get all of this, I am afraid. When I returned to the discussion, Larry was talking about what museums are doing in SL. He said these museums are definitely watching what's going on, but he didn't expect much activity in world from them.

NMC's business model is "self sustaining". So what does that mean? Larry explains that NMC has two business strategies in world. First, NMC has a virtual land business, really much like the Anche Chung, but targeted specifically at educational institutions. To them NMC is a reliable partner, and this creates a safe place for these institutions to get in world. This is, in the second place, in line with NMC's mission. Their aim with this land business was to recover cost, which is working out really well.

Q: What is the value proposition for prospective customers to work with NMC?
Larry answers: we don't sell our services, that's not what we're about. We help institutions figuring out this new palce, and we bring a real interest in teaching and learning to the table. We know this landscape really well. In 2007, we were looking to help people to understand this place. In 2008 we still do that, but we're also really interested in architecture. You don't need to provide shelter in SL, so architecture in SL needs to meet different needs. We are thinking about that. NMC is fairly picky about their projects; we are really trying to accomplish something. We don't take each project that's offered to us. So this makes us really different from other builders in world.

Q: you didn't want to sell, but that was a very convincing pitch :-)

Q: Some questions on government policy. In your testimony before Congress, you said: when the US expanded westward, land was reserved for universities. Energy, power was brought to rural areas because a law ordered it, not for profit. So whwat should government do now?
A: The government is not helping us to be a leader in this world. The US is lagging in broadband, for instance. Other countries (Larry specifically mentioned Japan) have a much higher broadband penetration, and much higher speeds. Same for mobile broadband. Clearly, it's not in the nations best interest to deregulate this sector. we could benefit from some regulation here. We need policies to bring this up to speed. Second, we need to invest in the internet like we did in the early 1990's. Finally, we need programs to bridge the digital divide.

Q: is the NMC a lobbyist group?
A: No, our charter does not allow that, but I was invited to testify; it was an expert testimony.

Q: what challenges and opportunities do enterprises face in the virtual world? What challenges do educators face? There is definitely 'game taint'. "Oh, there's the gamer guy, he has an avatar! They probably need a support group, like avaholics anonymous". One of the ways to address this is probably like Fleep said yesterday: have a businesslike demeanor, dress and behave appropriately. Is that the kind of advice you would give to educators and enterprises? And to what extend is NMC an advisor?
A: Fleep had some very good points. I wouldn't wear this unbuttoned shirt to a formal meeting. We're continuously thinking about the things Fleep mentioned. This is serious business. NMC did sessions in world, and we noticed people got in world because they were interested in the topic, not because it was novel. It's not really novel anymore. One of the things that makes this place more compelling though is because you can do more in this environment than in a video conference or a conference call. We try and showcase those extra things as long as they are relevant to the context, be it art or education. It has to be relevant, and it has to fit the context.

Here, both in the backchatter as on stage, an interesting discussion ensues about how an avatar should look and what is appropriate.

Finally, Robert asked some specific questions on liabilities and responsibilities for educators when they bring students in this virtual world, maybe exposing them to harassment or some such thing along the way. Luckily, as Larry said, NMC did some research into this matter and was not able to dig up a single incident in their customer groups. But, it is a legitimate source of caution, even though NMC's project are pretty safe, with their own orientation and an environment that's clearly about teaching and learning.

Robert followed this up with a somewhat related question: are people spending more hours a day in virtual worlds than they should, as was asked during the congressional hearings?
Larry said again, no, he didn't see a cause for concern. Often students who spend much time in world have swapped out TV time for SL time, which Larry considers a good thing. An immersive, active virtual world is perhaps a better place to spend time than sitting in front of the TV all evening. We are, says Larry, part of the solution, not the problem here. Larry mentioned an amazing tidbid: students spend on average 52 minutes per visit on an NMC project. Pretty remarkable for one signle visit, especially compared to the time people spend on an ordinary web page.

Finally: last week, at Metanomics, Steve Prentiss from Garnter expressed some grave concerns about Second Live as a viable venue for enterprises. He has no doubts on virtual worlds per se, but was quite bearish on SL, expressing concerns around the steep learning curve, hardware demands, and availability/stability issues. Says Robert: "Some pretty valid concerns there". So why does NMC do Second Life?

Larry: I don't agree with Steve. SL is not a good fit for enterprises if they keep doing it as they did in the past years. They didn't study the culture, there was no understanding, and they tried to retrofit, bolt old ideas on this new thing - that didn't work. It's a waste of money and time, to get in world like that. As for technical issues: companies need to discover reasons why there might be value in virtual worlds for them. When they are ready for that, investments in hardware will come, and technical issues will be resolved.
Second Life is the early leader. The seminal first instance of whatever this becomes! At the same time, people ask SL to be things that it wasn't built to be, like a secure meeting space for meetings with customers, or a DoD training ground. Some expectations were perhaps a little unfair to Linden Labs. Remember, this is called Linden *Labs*, they were running a big experiment until fairly recently. But as for availability, there have been big improvements recently.

And here, running out of time, Robert concluded this highly educational and interesting session.

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