Given my strong belief in the promise of virtual worlds applications, I follow closely their ups and downs in the maretkplace. Virtual worlds continue to be most popular in video games, massively multiplayer online environments and other consumer oriented applications. The number of applications in serious areas like education, business, government and health care remains small. So it is particularly exciting when we see working examples of serious virtual worlds applications, because, more than the words any of us can write, they nicely illustrate their potential. Let me highlight a couple of recent such applications.
The IBM Academy of Technology comprises the most accomplished technical leaders from around the world who work across the spectrum of IBM's technical activities. Established in 1989, its key mission is to identify and pursue technical issues affecting the future of the IT industry, especially those that are highly relevant to IBM's overall business and technical strategy. There are currently about 350 Academy members. In addition, there is an extensive global network of regional Academy Affiliate, whose membership includes the key technical leaders in each region.
The IBM Academy is a self-governing entity that elects its own members and officers. Its independence gives it very broad latitude in deciding what activities to pursue and what recommendations to make to IBM's senior management. For many years I was a member of the Academy's Board of Governors, and its Chairman from October 2004 until my retirement in 2007.
Every Fall, the Academy hosts a three-day general meeting to help promote communications and a sense of community among its members, as well as to develop and debate new ideas. Due to the deteriorating economic conditions caused by the global financial crisis all around us, the decision was made in early October to cancel the 2008 general meeting, scheduled to take place a few weeks later, and to replace it with some alternative virtual meeting that would require no travel.
As it turned out, since October of 2007, a small team of Academy members and other experts had been working to develop a virtual world platform for use in Academy meetings. Besides its large annual general meeting, the Academy holds many smaller meetings throughout the year as part of its various studies. Since participants in these studies come from all over the world, travel is always an issue, not just because of the expenses, but also the travel time and general wear and tear involved.
it was quite natural for the Academy to be the first organization in IBM to embrace the of use virtual worlds capabilities for its own needs. IBM's involvement in virtual worlds technologies first started following a 2004 Academy study on the subject. The study made a number of recommendations which were implemented in different parts of the company and led to IBM’s extensive virtual worlds initiative.
Due to the confidentiality requirements in many of the topics handled by the Academy, the virtual meetings had to be conducted in an intranet kind of platform hosted inside IBM's firewalls and accessible only to those with the proper authorization. A number of virtual worlds platforms were considered, and the decision was made to build the Academy’s virtual meeting platform on a private version of Second Life running on IBM's own systems. The work was done with the full support and cooperation of Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life.
Since no one tool fits all the many ways that we use to communicate and work with each other, the Academy’s virtual meeting platform included a number of tools besides Second Life. The Second Life platform was used primarily for large group interactive discussions such as poster sessions. Video chat was used for smaller sessions such as read-outs of the previous year’s studies. Keynotes were pre-recorded and posted for viewing at convenient times. Part of the overall experiment was to better understand what tools work best for each kind of activity.
Work went on through through the year. The Second Life private platform became operational in late August, and the team then started to build the needed virtual conference facilities. The plan was to hold an experimental virtual conference in mid-October focused just on Academy members interested in virtual worlds. This first conference proved to be very successful.
Around the same time, the unpredictable global economic conditions led to the cancellation of the Academy general meeting. All of a sudden, the virtual meeting platform, used only so far in the relatively small and experimental first conference, was needed for the larger, more elaborate general meeting, which would now take place in mid-November, barely four weeks away.
It took a heroic effort on the part of the small team building these virtual meeting capabilities. They had to significantly accelerate their efforts to be ready to host the annual meeting. Luckily, these were among the top technical people in IBM, - their talent, skills and hard work made the heroic effort possible.
The Academy’s annual general meeting took place from November 14 – 16. Overall, about 200 participants from 34 countries attended the virtual Academy meeting. About 150 poster sessions were held in the Second Life platform, as well as a variety of additional meetings.
The early feedback indicates that about 75% of the participants thought that the event was successful, not a bad number when you consider that the whole virtual Academy meeting was put together in the short four weeks from the time the physical meeting was canceled.
Everyone agreed that there is a lot to be done. The tools need to be made much more robust and easier to install. The various tools used to conduct a virtual meeting must be better integrated with each other. It is very important to spend time training people in the use of the virtual meeting tools, so they can forget about them and focus on the meeting itself.
The team also learned that organizing a virtual worlds conference takes as much effort as organizing a traditional conference. However, the costs to deliver the conference are significantly lower. Good logistics and support are critical to the success of a conference, whether conducted in a virtual or physical world. Finally, content is everything. Good presentations and sessions are key to any conference, virtual or otherwise.
Next, let me talk about a different kind of serious virtual world application. The Virtual Forbidden City: Beyond Space and Time, a partnership between the Palace Museum and IBM was just recently opened to the public.
For almost five centuries, from 1420 to 1923, the Forbidden City in Beijing was the home of the Emperor and his household during the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as the ceremonial and political center of the Chinese government. After the end of the Imperial period in China, it was opened to the public and became a museum.
The Forbidden City is a huge palace complex covering more than 178 acres. It was created to embody the idea of the emperor as the center of the universe. It consists of 980 surviving buildings with over 8,700 bays of rooms, as well as large numbers of historic artifacts. It was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1987, - the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.
The Virtual Forbidden City is a fully immersive, three-dimensional virtual world that re-creates and enables visitors to experience the Forbidden City. Visitors are invited to choose one of nine avatars dressed in historical Qing era customes. They can then navigate the palace as they would in real life, take virtual tours by themselves or with a guide, explore buildings and objects, and click on them for deeper information. They can also do more unusual things like stray into courtyards closed to tourists, lift building off their foundations to view them from different angles, watch the Qing dynasty emperor feast at dinner, train fighting crickets, practice archery, and play Go.
There is no doubt in my mind that we will see more and more exciting new virtual places to visit like the Virtual Forbidden City, and that virtual meetings and conferences like those just conducted by the IBM Academy of Technology will be increasingly adopted. Much remains to be done, some of it technical, - as we learn how to significantly improve the platforms and tools; and some of it is cultural - as we learn how to seamlessly integrate these virtual applications into our physical work and life. There is nothing standing in our way other than the will to innovate and lots of hard work.