It would not be the first time the suggestion has been made that games programmers hold at least one key to the future for business systems development. But IBM's latest research project - a "secret island" within the confines of Linden Labs' Second Life massively multi-player games environment - brings that possibility a whole lot closer.
The basic premise is to exploit the multi-player and graphics capabilities at which games programmers now generally excel to create an on-screen virtual analogue of a business.
The idea behind this is simple, according to Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of technology strategy and innovation at IBM.
"Government and enterprise back-end systems are getting ever more complex, with even printers having IP addresses. Can people cope with designing such systems, let alone use them? Technology is at its best when it is providing something intuitive, something very visual and graphic."
Visualisation tools are already well-advanced in engineering and science, but he feels there is a long way to go in areas such as business modeling and management. When it comes to modeling and simulation, the cutting edge with graphics utilisation is in gaming.
So IBM has decided to use the capabilities already developed by Linden Labs for its Second Life gaming environment to build a separate, experimental area within it. Participants – from IBM research and development departments around the world – can contribute whatever they feel is important to create a productive environment in which to conduct and manage "business".
As with Second Life, participants create an online "avatar" to represent them. There is already a business psychology aspect emerging here, revolving around whether the avatar should be a close approximation of the individual's appearance (probably suitable for a "conservative" or "professional" business image) or some more adventurous expression of the participant's view of their personality (for the fart and flair brigade). Essentially, when a meeting is called, the participants' avatars appear in a Second Life, 25MByte, online container that appears on each of their PCs.
Communications can be by key-entry text or VoIP if that is appropriate. With text, all the contributions can be easily and fully minuted, and the probability is that speech-to-text systems will allow the same for speech-based interactions in the near future.
The IBM developers, led by Hursley-based Ian Hughes (who has the to-die-for job title of Metaverse Evangelist) are also making use of appropriate "gadgets" developed by other Second Life players. For example, one such gadget has been adapted to create a simple coffee table tool that creates a chair round it whenever a participant wishes to "sit down".
The team itself is contributing gadgets to Second Life, including a language translator system. This has been provided free to Second Life mentors and is available for sale on the system. It has also developed a portal to an external business system – in this case Amazon – which can then be used by all participants. This has already highlighted the need for one or more APIs that will be needed to allow customisable integration of the system with all relevant external business systems.
The advantage over phone or video conferencing systems is that participants feel they are much more "there" – for example, it is far easier to identify who is communicating what at any one time. It also adds the scope to move away from a formal meeting to relax or "play", or perhaps hold a breakout meeting, all of which can help creativity.
Wladawsky-Berger would not be drawn on timescales or detailed development plans – though the hint is that if this experiment works IBM may set about developing its own, more business-oriented implementation of the idea.
The experiment is, however, already throwing up areas for serious consideration, not least the complexities that might arise with managing the licensing of the IP behind useful gadgets and add-ons. Less obvious and tangible issues will revolve around the development of etiquette and behavioral rules. "We are starting to address and define the issues and problems involved," he said.
He is also looking at the potential the system might have for furthering the disaggregation of business structures. At one extreme this could lead to their being no "businesses" as we know them today – everyone would be self-employed. More likely however, certainly in the mid-term, is that it could provide a very useful tool for companies and participants to manage and work with a project as a perceivable entity, with participants that could be drawn from many departments within the company, anywhere in the world, as well as business partners, customers and suppliers. ®