VWFE: BP on how businesses can make the most of virtual worlds

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joe-little.jpgIt’s the second day of the Virtual Worlds Forum Europe conference, so I’m here reporting on all the discussion and debate. There’s a fair amount of sessions on corporate and legal issues today, but also some exciting stuff on new virtual worlds, and the future. Sorry, The Future.

First up is Joe Little from BP, who’s talking about ‘evangelising virtual worlds within the corporation’. In other words, convincing your boss why he shouldn’t be scared of Second Life. Apparently BP is gearing up to make the most of the 3D Web / metaverses (they’re still deciding what term to use) next year.

“For us, remote working is becoming more the default. 15% of our staff are completely outside the company intranet, and we have a number of projects around the globe, so we’re looking for ways to get people connected to those projects remotely.”

BP also has an ageing workforce, so needs to impart their knowledge quickly to younger staff before the oldies retire. Virtual worlds are also seen by BP as an attractive way to attract graduates from the ‘digital generation’, who are comfortable with this stuff. And, perhaps most predictably, BP sees virtual worlds as a way to educate the public about new energy sources, like solar and wind power.

BP’s first three projects in virtual worlds: first a ‘Strategy War Room’ working together within Second Life, allowing them to blast PowerPoint slides at each other within the world. The second project was “providing a counselling service”, giving staff access to counselling, when they don’t feel that comfortable with email, or indeed revealing their identity. “They can choose from 20 male and female avatars, then have a counselling session,” says Joe.

Other stuff coming soon from BP. A lot around greener lifestyle education, particularly solar energy, and a virtual recruitment centre. BP is currently assessing 13 seperate virtual worlds: Second Life, Sony’s Home, Multiverse, Kaneva, Sun’s Wonderland, There.com, Intel’s Miramar, Activeworlds, Protosphere, Tixeo, Qwaq, Alicestreet and Forterra’s Olive platform. That’s quite a shortlist.

“We’re getting immersed as a team with all these tools, understanding where they’re going and what’s available. We’re connecting with our own ecosystem of experts to get our own idea of best practice. We rely a lot on business use cases, so other companies who’ve worked in this area, to get an idea what they’ve done, and what’s been successful.”

BP is also interested in the social aspects of virtual worlds – do people feel comfortable with anonymity, how do they dress as avatars, and what are the main successes and problems, particularly resistance within the company to virtual worlds?

So what works and what doesn’t? People can get lost in the concept – so fazed by being in a virtual world, they don’t pay attention to what you’re actually doing. People need to see a progression of how these worlds have evolved, to get context. Joe showed a slide that puts virtual worlds in the context of the development of the web, and says this works better than trying to explain virtual worlds in relation to games.

What else? 2D slides aren’t great in a virtual world, so you need to use machinema of real business applications – show people how it actually looks and feels. He warns against using live demos to show off virtual worlds though – “it’s too risky!”.

Perhaps most importantly, corporates need to have a strong idea of what their expected return on investment is when using a virtual world, for example, how much they’ll save on travel costs if staff are having virtual meetings.

Other tips for corporates using virtual worlds: have sandboxes to hand, so people can wander round and experiment. Have good case studies to hand of how other big companies are using virtual worlds, to make people feel more confident. “Even the roughest, toughest people in our industry have had some fairly colourful language when they first see a virtual world, but within 25 minutes they’re hooked. They get it very very quickly.”

How do you avoid misuse by staff once you’ve introduced virtual worlds? BP has regular policies for web use, and is looking to do the same for virtual worlds. “We’re learning this space, and what good and bad behaviour is.”

Check out other stories from the Virtual Worlds Forum Europe in our Virtual Reality category.

Stuart Dredge