Meet the Metaverse

A look into the evolving landscape of virtual events

Qwaq avatarTop to bottom:
avatar from Qwaq;
Virtualis conference room;
patio at Virtualis;
Mitch Kapor, Linden
Research chairman,
presents at Life 2.0

Stuart Bowen is apologizing for having had too much caffeine. He speaks frenetically about the event he’s helped to organize, and one can easily forgive his unbridled enthusiasm: This conference, which runs for six days, begins the following morning.

Virtualis conference room

But Bowen isn’t on site, per se, nor is he planning any last-minute travel to get there. His event is the Life 2.0 Summit, and it takes place in Second Life, an online 3-D virtual world.

For many, the concept still conjures up images of geeks and gamers, and there’s likely a high percentage of both among Second Life’s millions of “residents” around the globe. But, in fact, corporations such as IBM as well as more than 100 academic institutions have invested time and money in Second Life.

Patio at VirtualisThe Life 2.0 Summit, which first launched in April 2007 and has now completed its third iteration, is about the business of virtual worlds and the technology behind it: “what the future is, what people are working on, some technical stuff,” explains Bowen. It’s geeky, to be sure, but the emphasis is on business: Bowen was expecting 1,800 attendees for the spring event, with Fortune 1000 technologists well represented among them. In fact, the summit drew 2,100 registrants.

Bowen is the executive director of global business Mitch Kapor, Linden Research chairman, presents at Life 2.0 and sales for San Francisco-based Think Services (formerly CMP Media, which early this year was divided into independent business units). The first Live 2.0 event was an experiment more than anything else, primarily to gauge interest. “We wanted to know,” Bowen recounts, “could we attract an audience? And we managed to get 1,000 people signed up, and a nice set of speakers. What really surprised us is the quality of audience: Fortune 500 companies, Fortune 1000 companies and the right type of job functions.”

Virtual Corbin Ball

A door for planners

Meetings technology consultant Corbin Ball, who last September gave the first seminar in Second Life tailored for the meetings industry, expects to see an increasing number of these “metaverse” events -- a general name given to virtual worlds, of which Second Life is a well-known example. “There seems to be a lot of interest,” says Ball (left). “These multiuser, virtual-environment tools will improve and will get more realistic and easier to use. It won’t be for everyone, but I think it’s here to stay.”

The realism and tools to which Ball refers are what separate a metaverse event from web-based platforms for webinars or virtual shows. A Second Life event, for example, requires the attendee to download the Second Life software (which is free). The attendee is represented onscreen by an avatar -- a 3-D character, which may or may not resemble the attendee -- that the user guides on-screen through the virtual environment (for our purposes, often a conference room or auditorium; think video game, but with less adventure and violence). Attendees communicate with each other through their avatars, either by instant messaging or, through a microphone, by voice -- all in real time.

“This was by far the most like a face-to-face meeting,” Ball says about the Second Life seminar, more “than any web conference or webcast I have participated in. This is completely different from standard online web conferences, where participants essentially just see each other as a text list of participants -- and where text messages are the principal way of asking questions.”

Dan ParksBall delivered this seminar at the MeCo Mansion, a swanky, 16-room meeting and events venue in Second Life built by Dan Parks (his avatar is at right), president and creative director of Dana Point, Calif.-based Corporate Planners Unlimited. Parks and some colleagues from the Meetings Community (MeCo) listserv run the project, which is devoted to virtual-world education for the meetings industry. The MeCo crew also runs weekly watercooler meetings “in world” and a CMP Boot Camp, a three-day study group for CMP exam preparation, held in the MeCo Mansion.

Last month, Corporate Planners Unlimited opened Virtualis, an in-world virtual convention center that Parks believes to be the largest trade show and event space in Second Life. (Actual capacities were still being tested at press time.) Like the MeCo Mansion, Virtualis doubles as a training ground to get planners up to speed on virtual event possibilities. One can learn how to plan an event as well as actually hold a virtual conference here for a client.

Virtualis offers a variety of rooms (breakouts, an exhibit hall, a grand ballroom) and technology (lighting, streaming video, PowerPoint, live chat and recording equipment). The venue’s learning center, named after industry veteran Joan Eisenstodt, can host meetings no earthly venue can: Avatars might sit on balloons floating through space, for example, or on bubbles underwater. “The ‘wow’ factor that we’ve pulled off here is amazing,” says Parks. “We want planners to know that this is another accessory they can have in their belts. Especially with the greening of meetings and the tightening of travel budgets, this is something else they can do for clients.”

REAL-WORLD COSTS
Virtualis

Planners can hold
events in Virtualis


Like the technology itself, the fees and revenue models for virtual shows are still evolving.

United Business Media, parent of San Francisco-based Think Services, withdrew from its Second Life endeavors at press time. While its Life 2.0 Summit was “otherwise a success,” says Stuart Bowen, executive director of business and sales, UBM “just didn’t see it as a viable business model.” Sponsorships helped offset costs, but attendees did not pay to participate.

Think Services owned the land in Second Life where the summit was held. Each Second Life “island” sells for $1,675, plus $295 per month for maintenance. Land owners must then develop their property to accommodate the uses they require.

Dan Parks made “a considerable investment of time, money and resources” to construct Virtualis, a sprawling, high-tech convention center in Second Life. Parks, president of Dana Point, Calif.-based Corporate Planners Unlimited, will rent the venue. (Pricing is yet to be revealed.)

Web-based events are 50 to 80 percent cheaper to produce than physical ones, says Don Best, director of marketing for Menlo Park, Calif.-based Unisfair, which offers technology to power such events. “It’s about $20,000 to $40,000 to get started,” says Best, “and they can run up into the high six figures.” Typically, Unisfair’s clients don’t charge attendees. However, a few consumer events will soon do so for some sessions. Notes Best, “It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.” -- M.J.S.

Instant globetrotting

Can a virtual-world meeting replace face-to-face contact? “Yes and no,” says Stuart Bowen. For small to midsize meetings and training sessions, “there’s a huge opportunity in this sort of environment,” he says, “for a whole host of reasons: being able to get people from all over the world in an environment easily, and getting speakers or course leaders to the same spot. You can bring together the course leader, who is an expert from a particular company but is based in Bangalore, with another expert who’s based in Silicon Valley -- and get 50 people into a room or an amphitheater in Second Life.”

For larger events, however, the virtual world offers “more of a complement scenario than a replacement one,” says Bowen. This is based in part on current capacity limitations -- the largest amphitheater used by Bowen’s Life 2.0 Summit can fit about 300 avatars, even if 2,000 registrants attend events throughout the course of the summit -- and the still-limited number of people familiar with Second Life or who have the technology to participate (a broadband connection and a sufficiently new and fast PC or laptop with a microphone/headset for voice communication).

Dave Lutz, Ohio-based managing director of the meetings industry consulting firm Velvet Chainsaw, also cites the need for would-be participants to have the necessary computer and voice capabilities, as well as having an avatar and some experience moving around in a virtual environment. “I think events lose out on a lot of business because of those restrictions,” he notes.

However, Lutz is quick to point out that “Second Life has tremendous potential value, particularly if you see someone you know and you chat with them. That can be an even more engaging experience than speaking by phone.”

The Eisenstodt Learning and Community Center in Virtualis

The Eisenstodt Learning and Community Center in Virtualis