April 24, 2006

The Orange County Register

Businesses find real uses in virtual world

By Colin Stewart

Software engineer Michael O'Brien holds business meetings on the fictitious island of Chatsubo.

It's a virtual location in the online game "Second Life" that he's helping to develop for corporate uses.

Other real-world businesspeople visit the virtual "World of Warcraft" to hone their leadership and communication skills.

Multinational chipmaker Intel Corp., meanwhile, is exploring ways to use tools of online gaming to improve communication among employees from different continents and cultures.

Those are examples of how the world of online gaming is starting to change American workplaces. It's a development that's barely in its infancy but holds promise for improving how the electronic office functions, especially for online team members who are miles - or thousands of miles - apart.

O'Brien, an administrator for the El Segundo-based space program contractor the Aerospace Corp., told a conference last week at UC Irvine that corporations and game developers are already "circling each other warily" to see what they can learn from each other.

The conference, titled "Corporate Opportunities for Multi-Player Games," was sponsored by the AeA electronics industry trade organization and the local business-promotion organization OCTANe.


In multi-player online games such as "World of Warcraft" by Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine, success can depend on strong leaders who communicate well and can coordinate a well-timed attack that uses the varied talents of their team, from dwarves and gnomes to night elves and humans.

Because many modern corporations depend on creating effective teams from geographically separate staff members, some companies study games to see how they accomplish that through a mix of Internet phone calls, instant messaging and personal communication skills.

Some executives play online games to improve their online communication skills and to seek better online networking tools.

O'Brien works on improving corporate communication through a meeting space within the online game "Second Life," which has about 190,000 players.

In a virtual meeting room on the game's "Island of Chatsubo," team members log in simultaneously for discussions that focus on an on-screen "picture board" for participants' reports. Unlike a real-world display board, it fades to black when it's not being used so it won't be a distraction, O'Brien said.

He admits that the game's graphics lack the fine resolution that would make the display board as useful as he'd like. That drawback leaves the "Second Life" site a bit less useful than standard online conferencing tools such as WebEx, which already allow geographically dispersed team members to see documents simultaneously online.

Eleanor Wynn, a "social technology architect" in Intel's Information Technology Group, is working on a more sophisticated teleconferencing program inspired by the 3-D graphics and multitasking of online games.

The program, called Miramar, displays documents, contacts and communication links floating in a virtual landscape. Because the view appears to be three-dimensional, each person at the meeting can see and use more of those tools than on an ordinary 2-D computer screen.

Users can drag and drop items on their individual screens, link them electronically, use the computer for different tasks, then return to find the items still displayed on the screen.

Don't expect to find Miramar software on sale at your local CompUSAany time soon. It's still just a prototype that initially would be only for internal Intel use - if Intel decides it works well enough.

"We're still in pathfinder mode," Wynn said.


In recent months, online gamers' blogs have been abuzz with discussions of how well the hugely popular "World of Warcraft" game prepares people for managing teams in real-world corporations.

With more than 5million players, it has the potential to be a massive training ground for leaders of multicultural teams.

As one gamer described the leader's challenge when coordinating online military action: "Members come from six different continents, ... have varying degrees of proficiency at English, ... a different view of the world, different motivations for being on the team and, at times, conflicting goals. The task must be completed asynchronously using text chat and voice communication software via the Internet."

High-tech venture capitalist Joi Ito is the most prominent businessperson discussing the potential of "World of Warcraft" as a management-training tool. He is a leader of an online "guild," including several executives, who not only team up to launch raids as part of the game, but also to look for techniques for improving online coordination.

"My feeling is that what we are doing in 'WoW' represents in many ways the future of real-time collaborative teams and leadership," Ito writes in his blog, joi.ito.com.

At UCI, associate professor Adriaan van der Hoek is already using a game for training, but so far only in an educational setting. The SimSE program simulates the work of a software engineering manager, complete with tight deadlines and programmers on coffee breaks.

Van der Hoek has his eye on developing it into a multiplayer, multi-site, role-playing game and a tool for corporate training. The game would introduce new employees to the ins and outs of a company without the risk of violating real-world policies.

Each of these game spinoffs promises improved efficiency - eventually - but it's probably too much to hope that any of them could prepare new employees for the worst that office politics has to offer.

For that to happen, they would have to be too treacherous and perhaps too much like "World of Warcraft," filled with treacherous gnomes and back-stabbing mental midgets.
Businesses find real uses in virtual world

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