Electrolux Innovation Awards
The latest issue of the MIT Press journal Innovations has a couple of interesting articles about innovation and virtual worlds. I just finished reading Philip Evans excellent essay "A Silicon Silicon Valley? Virtual Innovation and Virtual Geography." He describes a number of the unique aspects of Second Life that make it a prime breeding ground for new kinds of innovation including : spatiality, fun, experiential learning, trust building, experimenting with personae, and chance interactions. He notes however that the lack of demonstrable real world impacts resulting from these virtual interactions make this case largely speculative. Evans asks:
[A]s long as they these innovations reside solely within the virtual world, then how does that persuade a skeptic unconvinced that virtual worlds matter except as entertainment?
Evans touches on the heart of the issue for lots of Second Life boosters — what are the real world beneficial results of the corporate, charitable, and artistic activity in Second Life?
Public Sector Innovation
The MacArthur Foundation is absorbed with this very question as they explore translating their work to the virtual world. Connie Yowell, a program officer at MacArthur, stated at the last Second Life Community Convention that their interest in Second Life is in how it can be used to address real world problems in new ways that haven’t been thought of before.
For non-profits, this often means using virtual worlds to raise funds for their work. But beyond the unique achievements of the American Cancer Society, are virtual worlds really better for fundraising than real world or web-based charity drives? So far, the answer is no.
Besides fundraising, the public sector awaits a truly innovative solution emerging from Second Life. I.e. a new way to run a political campaign, or a more effective weapon to combat global warming, or a better approach to stopping the spread of AIDS. Second Life awaits a "Moveon.org" moment.
Private Sector Innovation
For companies looking to branch out into the metaverse, the challenge become demonstrating how a virtual presence affects the bottom line. "What’s the ROI?" is the question every virtual world developer has to learn how to answer cold.
The first order problem is figuring out how to meaningful measure audience participation and engagement in this space. Then comes the second order issue of linking that measurement to real world effects on sales, ratings, market share, etc. Finally, there are comparisons of virtual world investment versus real world, web, broadcast media, and print media investments.
Here are some examples of the kind of real world innovations that I think are not only possible but inevitable given the characteristics of the space as described by Evans:
- A musical artist will make the transition from successful virtual world star to real world pop star
- An appliance or digital device prototyped in-world will be mass produced and successfully sold as a real world product
- A virtual world mogul will branch out and become a successful non-virtual entrepreneur
- A distributed team of architects from around the world will use Second Life to collaborate, prototype, solicit public input, and create a major real world public edifice
Until any of these innovations happen, though, Second Life is going to be seen as "just entertainment."