Top IT companies embracing virtual reality

This week IBM, Intel and Sun separately staged events in Second Life, which boasts a population of nearly 900,000

Among the space stations and vampire castles in the virtual world of Second Life, a new kind of development is emerging: IT expo.

This week IBM, Intel and Sun separately staged events in the virtual world, which boasts a population of nearly 900,000.

These forays into the virtual realm are just the latest example of how old-world companies are taking advantage of new world marketing opportunities. In addition to Second Life, technology firms are using MySpace, YouTube and blogs to reach out to customers in more informal and interactive ways.

"Companies recognize that press releases still serve a purpose, but they don't make a splash," says Mat Small, a manager at public relations firm Bite Communications, which orchestrated Sun's debut in Second Life.

"The thing about new media is there are some highly sought after audiences: for example, developers. I don't see very many developers reading press releases," Small says. "You're more likely to encounter them in an environment like Second Life, where companies can engage them in a fun, credible, candid, unstructured way that I think is very appealing to them and is more of a two-way dialogue."

Sun did just that when it held a press conference in Second Life, presided over by Sun Chief Researcher John Gage and Chris Melissinos, Sun's chief gaming officer. The two appeared in avatar form -- an animated rendering that can move within the virtual world -- to talk about Sun's Darkstar gaming project and to unveil the new Sun Pavilion in Second Life. The pavilion includes an outdoor theater, meeting spaces and kiosks that will play videos showing Sun technology at work.

IBM, meanwhile, hosted a block party for Big Blue alumni last week. The Second Life block party is part of a larger program, Greater IBM, which fosters connections between IBM alumni worldwide. "One of the objectives of the meeting is to get IBMers and former IBMers interacting together," says Mathew Georghiou, CEO of educational software development company MediaSpark and a former IBM engineer who made a presentation during the Second Life block party.

For its part, Intel extended a Centrino Core 2 Duo promotion in New York City into Second Life. Virtual builder Versu Richelieu spent Oct. 12-15 living in a store window on 5th Avenue, simultaneously creating a virtual version of her experience in Second Life. Blogs and videos rounded out the Intel event.

Intel also has a MySpace page for Centrino and has uploaded various video clips to YouTube. In fact, a search of nearly any technology company should turn up a handful of YouTube contributions.

"We're dipping our toes in a bunch of different things," says Bill Kirkos, an Intel spokesman. "The beauty of it is you don't have to change your investments or your focus on what I would call traditional media, whether it's public relations, advertising, Intel.com. This [social media] is an opportunity where for a very low cost you can go and experiment and try some of these things out."

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