Second Life: What is the fuss?

After a week's sojourn, our virtual traveler isn't so sure.

FRIDAY: Looking for commerce

I returned to IBM's main island determined to find an IBMer who could answer some questions. I didn't find such a person, but I had a long chat with a well-dressed wolf who said he was from FurNation. He said he was only there to use the public "sandbox," which is provided by IBM, to build things. There are a number of such sandboxes in SL, where residents can go and unpack the bits and pieces in their "inventories" and then work to assemble them into useful objects, such as furniture, vehicles or fashion accessories.

I told him I was trying to find out if companies in SL made any money. Virtual companies make real money, he said, "selling furry avatars, sexual bits, weapons and the like," while real companies like IBM only advertise and recruit. The wolf was not applying for a job at IBM, it seemed, but he thanked IBM for providing the sandbox. I asked if I might photograph him in front of it, but he refused.

Still fretting about bandwidth, I traveled next to the Cisco Virtual Campus and walked into the Cisco Training Center. A sign indicated that it was for use only by Cisco partners and employees, which raises the question of why it's on the public Internet and not on a Cisco intranet.

In any case, I found neither partners nor employees in any of the training rooms, and no books, computers or training materials of any kind. Never had it seemed so reasonable to ask if there really was a there there.

SATURDAY: Looking for romance

I can't share all the details with you. Suffice it to say I found two choices. I could go to some more or less respectable place and approach some more or less respectable-looking women and chat them up. I did that. Some just walked away, and some made polite small talk and then walked away. I think one problem was I had not taken the time to tweak my appearance, so I still looked like a boring nerdy newbie -- no tattoos, no jewelry, no big muscles, no flashy, body-defining clothes.

The other choice was to go to some raunchy place devoted to orgies and just join in. I didn't do that. OK, I went to some but I didn't join in. That wouldn't have been "romance," would it?

SUNDAY: Reflection

To say I tried everything in SL would be almost as ludicrous as saying I have tried everything in my first life. Readers who are experienced SLers will argue that if I had only done this or tried that, or joined such and such a group, I would have seen the magic in this virtual world -- which, after all, has attracted 10 million registered users. Perhaps. But I can only report the disappointments as I encountered them, as seen by a real person during a short sojourn in a virtual world.

The user interface is slow, clunky and primitive, at least compared with what's available in the best computer games today. Graphics are flat and poorly nuanced, and image downloads would try the patience of Job. But perhaps my biggest disappointment, since I write for corporate IT managers, is that the corporate presence in SL is so tentative and rudimentary, in most ways inferior to the companies' own Web sites.

To be fair, most of these companies are experimenting, and their islands in SL are nascent works in progress. But I will now reveal to these companies what they need to do, so they can then buy huge numbers of Linden dollars with the real dollars they save on focus groups.

Each major company location in SL should be staffed with a real person, at least during business hours. If some friendly and attractive avatar at the Cisco center had approached me and said, "Yes, sir, how may I help you?" and then had given me useful answers to my typed in questions about training, employment opportunities or products, I would have fallen out of my chair with amazement and delight.

Yes, I know that would cost serious bucks. One or more real people would have to be paid real dollars to do that. But if a company can't make its virtual experience substantially better -- and I mean really head-and-shoulders better -- than its existing Web capabilities, it might as well not bother.

Because my wolf friend isn't going to buy an IBM computer because he spotted it through the window while playing in the IBM sandbox. The IBM island must be a destination deliberately sought out by people with an interest in IBM, with the knowledge that they will have a really cool virtual experience there while being treated like a real human by a real human.

So will I return to SL? I probably will one day. But first I have to knock out that Windows/Linux story.

Gary Anthes is a national correspondent at Computerworld.

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