Are Virtual World Conferences a Cost-Effective Eco-Alternative? (Updated)

second-nature-island.jpgWhat do you do if you’re a dedicated eco-preneur and want to attend the latest conference on global warming? Do you jump on a carbon-belching jet for Bali and hope that the carbon offsets you buy afterward also offset the irony of using air travel at all? Or is there a way that’s significantly less impactful on the planet (not to mention the budget)? Indeed there is — a video simulcast of the Bali climate change conference is being held in Second Life on an island owned by the Nature Publishing Group.

There you can catch some of the keynote talks from the virtual beach resort isle on Second Nature and chat with other avatar-based attendees. Cisco metaverse evangelist Christian Renaud is so passionate about promoting virtual worlds as an eco-friendlier alternative to air travel, he recently joined fellow technologists to choose this and other tele-based systems over flying.

But are these really a viable alternative to face-to-face meetings? While most of my writing career is centered around Second Life, I have to say, in all honesty, “Sometimes — but in the near future, not so much.” Why?

There are certain advantages to virtual world conferences. Since you can dynamically and collaboratively create 3D-scripted objects in Second Life across the Net, you’re able to convey information in ways that would be unfeasible in the real world. This is one of the reasons that companies like IBM have been pushing a “3D web” model in Second Life and other virtual worlds. And thanks to a trick of the brain, we come to associate our avatars with ourselves, causing us to follow our unwritten rules of personal space and eye contact — a sense of presence that teleconferencing can’t readily replicate.

But while it’s possible to use voice communication in Second Life, this quickly gets confusing in a group setting. More effective, I think, are multicast meetings in text chat, including group IM and person-to-person IM, making it possible to have several (often complementary) archivable conversations going at once — a powerful phenomenon that SL entrepreneur Gwynneth Llewellyn has written about persuasively. At the end of the meeting, you have an illustrated transcript that’s a handy resource for everyone, including those who didn’t attend — as an example, check out this Second Life group chat I hosted with Judge Richard Posner.

All of the above, of course, assumes you can use Second Life at all, and that generally requires a powerful computer and an even more powerful tolerance for frustration. Even four years after launch, SL’s user interface is confusing and unwieldy, the client software and world server grid are prone to crashing, and given previous history, it’ll be a year or two before there are substantial improvements. Until then, virtual meetings are only an exciting eco-alternative for the early adopters who’ve learned to live with these drawbacks. (And that doesn’t even include Katie, who couldn’t locate her discarded SL account to join me on Second Nature island.)

Update, 4:30pm: A few hours after publication, I got news that Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass), Chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, will skip the plane ride and address the UN’s Climate Change conference from Second Life.

Wagner James Au is also GigaOM’s games editor and writes about Second Life for his blog New World Notes.


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