Last week I was interviewed by Stephen Shankland, a technology reporter for CNET. I have had a number of interviews with Stephen over the years, all one-on-one. Some have been in person, - when we met at conferences we both happened to be attending, but most have been over the phone, given that Stephen is in San Francisco and I am in the New York area.
Last week's interview was not a one-on-one interview but a public one. I have done quite a number of public interviews and been involved in panels at conferences, sometimes as the interviewee, other times as the interviewer or moderator. I really enjoy public interviews and panels because the audience participation brings a lot of energy to the experience.
The public interview with Stephen took place at CNET's Second Life office, in their third floor auditorium, with the public invited to listen to and participate. Stephen and I, through our avatars, sat on the stage, with the audience, through their avatars, sitting in the auditorium. It is amazing for those who have not experienced it, how quickly you forget that you are in a virtual world rather than a “real” one. You just focus on the fact that you are on stage being interviewed by a very savvy reporter in front of a live audience - which is what was taking place.
Stephen and I talked about a number of subjects relating to Second Life, virtual worlds and IBM's new 3D Internet initiative, which Sam Palmisano announced last month at an IBM meeting in Beijing which included a short conversation between Sam and I in Second Life. Stephen mixed his own questions with questions from the audience. Let me briefly comment on a few of the subjects we discussed.
I mentioned to Stephen that we are very much in the early, experimental stage in the use of Second Life and related virtual world capabilities in business and other societal applications such as health care, education and training, and government. We honestly do not know what works and what does not work, that is, what will be appealing and useful to people and what will not. But we also know that the only way to find out is to conduct experiments out there in the "real world", in the marketplace where the people are. The public interview we were conducting in CNET's virtual offices and auditorium is an excellent example of such an experiment. Another is a joint exploration of virtual world applications to business that IBM and Circuit City just announced. We need many such experiments.
There are tens of millions of people around the world involved in collaborative, Web 2.0 kinds of applications, including quite a large number participating in visually oriented, massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and role-playing virtual world environments like Second Life. Something must be going on that is attracting all those people, and it is only through experimentation that we will figure out how to capture the essence of that attraction so we can transfer it to business and societal applications. We went through a very similar experience in the early and mid 1990s trying to understand the appeal of the Internet and nascent World Wide Web so we could develop what eventually became e-business. We are now trying to understand what v-business is all about.
I said to Stephen that I view the kinds of highly visual, interactive interfaces embodied in Second Life and similar virtual worlds as providing a kind of broadband channel into our brains, as opposed to the deeper, but more narrowband channels that text based interfaces provide. Given the massive amounts of information being generated by the IT applications that surround us on all sides, we need major breakthroughs to help us absorb, make sense of and interact with all that information.
Our brains are wired for sight and sound. It is not surprising that visualization first emerged in IT applications around scientific, engineering and medical applications, since that was the only way to enable researchers and designers to make sense of all the information being generated by supercomputing simulations. We now need to develop similar highly visual, interactive interfaces for just about all IT applications.
A number of people will find virtual worlds, multiplayer online games and avatars kind of silly, especially our attempts at trying to explore how such capabilities can lead to v-business, that is, to "serious" applications involving business, work, learning and health care. They will think of such efforts as the latest fad in the IT industry. They will undoubtedly be right to some extent.
It is important to remember that ten years ago many found the early Web-based applications rather weird and faddish, and not something that would likely take hold in business. Indeed some of the e-businesses that were created at the height of the dot-com frenzy were silly, and the marketplace dealt with them accordingly. But, I think that most will agree that the Internet and e-business have had a revolutionary impact on the world.
I am hoping that something similar will happen once again. I suspect that, over time, it will.