Businesses experimenting with virtual worlds

Many businesses are already taking a serious look at virtual worlds, keen not to lag behind adopting a new technology as some were with the Internet.

Although virtual environments are still at an early stage in development and adoption, many companies are already dabbling in one or more virtual worlds or closely observing them prior to getting their feet wet.

Businesses that may have been slow to embrace the Internet are keen this time around to actively engage with the technology before it becomes mainstream.

"'I don't get it, but I know I should get it,'" is what businesses tend to tell Sandra Kearney, global director, emerging 3D Internet at IBM, when she asks them about virtual worlds. "They say, 'I missed the Internet; I don't want to miss this too,' " she said during a panel discussion to debate virtual worlds and their business value at a joint IBM and MIT Media Labs conference held Friday.

Auto maker Toyota is already using virtual worlds as a way to get preteens and teenagers interested in its Scion entry-level car brand, which is targeted at younger buyers.

"We've made a fairly significant six-figure investment in virtual communities across different worlds," said Adrian Si, interactive marketing manager for Scion at Toyota Motor Sales USA. For instance, Toyota is the exclusive supplier of virtual Scion cars in Numedeon's Whyville educational virtual world for children aged 8 to 15 and provides them with information about car financing.

Tweens are already thinking about what car they might buy and Toyota hopes that giving them a positive experience with its cars in virtual worlds might translate into them or their parents buying vehicles from the vendor down the road. Good buzz about a product can go a long way, Si believes.

Only a few years old, Toyota's Scion brand is one with which the company can afford to take risks that the auto maker couldn't with its other much more established brands, Si said. Toyota got interested in virtual worlds at the same time that the companies behind such communities were coming to the auto maker to see if it was interested in funding them. As well as Whyville, Toyota is promoting its Scion brand in Linden Research Inc.'s Second Life and is about to do the same in Gaia Interactive's Gaia Online teen virtual world.

PepsiCo Inc. has yet to experiment with virtual worlds, but is keeping an eye on the space.

"We're intrigued by it and are actively monitoring it," said Julius Akinyemi, director of emerging technologies at the beverage and snack vendor. Like Toyota, PepsiCo is particularly attracted by how much input users have in creating their virtual environments and the ability to directly interface with and influence those individuals.

One area where PepsiCo thinks it might look to engage with the residents of virtual worlds is in soliciting their input on new products, according to Akinyemi. The vendor would hope to do more codevelopment of new beverages and snacks as well as create quick marketing buzz on new offerings, he said. There need to be more tools available in virtual worlds to make such development and marketing efforts easier, Akinyemi noted, along with a general move to simplify the process for anyone to enter any virtual environment.

Building bridges between the real world and virtual environments will become increasingly important in guaranteeing a successful virtual presence for a company, IBM's Kearney said. She pointed to what the Ganz gift company has done with its popular Webkinz plush toys. Children who own one of the toys receive a code to enter the Webkinz virtual world where they can play with a virtual version of the real-world toy.

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