Cisco chief lauds coming virtual-world technology

Virtual worlds will succeed eventually, Chambers says

Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers appeared in a virtual press conference in Second Life Tuesday, his avatar dressed in a business suit, where he predicted virtual world technologies will eventually "explode" in terms of business usage and their impact.

Chambers disagreed with some recent expert opinions and blogs that virtual world designers and operators are facing a downturn in businesses that are interested in starting up virtual world meeting rooms or product demonstrations in Second Life and other platforms.

"I disagree with that overall commentary," he said. "We are at the very, very beginning stages" of virtual world uses.

Chambers said some technologies may take time to catch on. "If there's one thing I've learned, it's that sometimes concepts are a little too early, and when they take off, they take off with speed," he said. "When a [technology] market does move, it moves faster than anyone anticipated."

He said Cisco made predictions about Internet technologies in the 1990s that took time to grow, but eventually exceeded forecasts. "We'll see [virtual worlds] explode," he said. "We have to have it more ubiquitous, and it's the very front end of a very large wave of opportunities." Ever the pitch man, Chambers said Cisco networking technologies are "really bringing that virtual ability" and that Cisco stands to "benefit in a big way."

In his summary at the end of the 25-minute press conference, Chambers said all kinds of virtual interfaces, including uses of YouTube and wikis as well as virtual reality, "will forever change business models and entertainment ... We may disagree on the timeframe. It's not a question of if, but when."

Cisco spokeswoman Jeanette Gibson said that while there are many platforms used by businesses for virtual meetings and customer interactions, Cisco has relied largely on Second Life to allow customers to visit Cisco islands, or simulations, to view and interact with Cisco products. Cisco also has an internally created virtual world where its channel partners can meet to discuss business opportunities.

Stephen Prentice, an analyst at Gartner, said in a recent Computerworld article that some companies have entered a "hiatus" with virtual world technologies in the past year, either shutting them down or letting their virtual operations turn into ghost towns. They did so because they couldn't get customers interested and have turned to using virtual reality for collaboration instead of e-commerce, he added.

Bruce Damer, a virtual world innovator, posed the question in a blog at Terra Nova this month of whether the virtual world industry is facing a "winter" just as severe as the downturn that ran from 2000 to 2003. Damer said signs of an "upcoming chasm" include reports that regular use at Second Life is small enough that it would not stay in existence if compared to a typical massive multiplayer online game platform. He also questioned whether several new virtual world platforms could "Balkanize" a limited user base.

Damer also asked whether there are so many real-time means of representing people online, including low-cost voice over IP systems like Skype, that virtual worlds might always struggle for visibility.

However, in addition to his optimistic outlook for virtual reality technology, Chambers claimed that Cisco was the most advanced of any company in using virtual interfaces. He said employee usage of wikis had doubled in the last six months, while use of YouTube video content for business uses had quadrupled in four months. Using such technologies can drive improved workplace productivity, he said.

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