Web3D: fad or future?

The truth goes through three stages. First, it's ridiculed, next violently opposed, then finally accepted as self-evident. No...

The truth goes through three stages. First, it's ridiculed, next violently opposed, then finally accepted as self-evident.

No one took the web seriously in the beginning, according to Philip Rosedale, creator and founder of Second Life and former chief technology officer at internet media company RealNetworks.

"Looking back on the early development of websites for business use, many brick-and-mortar companies dismissed even owing a website, or if they did own one, ended up developing 'brochureware', which failed to engage customers," Rosedale said.

He believes the opportunity for companies using the web today lie in predicting what future technologies will deliver business value.

And the web could already be on the cusp of its next major evolution, Web3D, with Second Life one of the pioneers of the phenomenon.

What is Web3D?

Forrester Research describes Web3D as a system of linked, interactive 3D and 2D environments that include everything from use-specific private applications such as immersive learning simulations to virtual worlds.

"Within five to seven years, Web3D will deliver an interactive, immersive experience much richer than the static, text-oriented or even interactive graphical interfaces of today's web," said Forrester analyst Erica Driver in a report.

Driver believes that resistance to using Web3D technology such as virtual worlds in business mirrors the hesitancy some companies originally felt towards taking website development seriously.

But businesses such as BT and Unilever have already begun exploring virtual world technology, to see if it could be useful in conferencing global teams that work across different time zones and in the rapid prototyping of ideas.

Event spaces

The chief difference between Web3D applications and traditional 2D websites lies in the former's use as event spaces: areas where customers can gather to perform a group function, such as providing feedback on a virtual hotel to help in the design and construction of a real hotel.

"Companies need to find what parts of their business map well to event- or space-driven applications," saud Dele Atanda, a consultant with Ark Agent.

Publishers have held virtual book launches in Second Life and musicians have held virtual concerts to help sell their CDs, for example. It's about thinking how you can use virtual spaces to help your customers and employees collaborate.

The fact that businesses are expressing an interest in virtual worlds also means that suppliers are getting involved.

Graham Spittle, IBM's director at the Hursley laboratory, said that corporate customers had expressed an interest in virtual world technology for collaboration and teleconferencing. But concerns about security and the flow of information between public and private sections meant some were waiting for the technology to mature.

Private regions

IBM has taken these concerns on board and is looking to make Second Life applications more enterprise-ready by hosting private regions of the virtual world on its own servers.

Under the plans, IBM employees will be able to move their avatars between the public sections of Second Life and the private areas hosted behind IBM's corporate firewall.

IBM employees will then be able to talk about work projects privately, and have sensitive discussions without the data passing through the servers of Linden Lab, which runs Second Life.

"We're in the process of updating our firewall technology to enable much wider use within enterprise," said Rosedale.

But Gartner advised firms to think twice before creating a corporate presence in virtual environment.

"Second Life is acceptable for pilots and prototypes," said Gartner analyst James Lundy. "However, current technical issues would have a significant impact on any organisation that wanted to use it in a production environment, and we are advising companies to evaluate alternatives."

Power issue

One of the problems with Second Life is that it requires powerful desktop PCs, according to Gartner. Second Life supports Nvidia graphics cards and certain ATI cards, but not all.

Not all business users will have access to a gaming-class PC. Gartner said that graphics cards could differ even in the same PC model from the same manufacturer, and that organisations would need to take this into account as user experiences become more graphics-intensive.

The creator of Second Life acknowledged that insufficiently powerful graphic cards could inhibit some deployments today, but that as processing power and the quality of graphics card increased, so more businesses would begin experimenting with the technology.

Driver said that virtual worlds or "3D-styled websites", which provide a much richer experience, would take off as internet speeds increased.

"It is easy to poke fun at Second Life and pooh-pooh the whole idea," she said. "But in 1990, the web that we take for granted today seemed unbelievable and unachievable."

Second Life will be leading collaboration platform >>

Virtual worlds: where are the rules? >>

Web3D Consortium website >>

Web 2.0: expert view >>

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