Author: Dan Keeler
Dear Reader

As the world’s business leaders were gathering in Davos in late January for the World Economic Forum, Global Finance was investigating a seemingly very different world. Intrigued by a spate of wide-eyed media reports about the marvels of computer-generated virtual worlds, we sent one of our reporters into the much hyped and stupendously fast-growing virtual world of Second Life.

For those readers who have not yet heard of or experienced it, Second Life is an Internet-based video game where players are able to create and control their own characters that can then wander at will around a virtual world. Within that world they can meet other virtual characters, build things, buy and sell virtual land and products, make music, hold meetings, film movies—pretty much anything, in fact, that doesn’t require the senses of taste, touch or smell to accomplish.

So great are the possibilities within this virtual space that the corporate world is taking a keen interest. In recent months, some of the world’s biggest and most visible corporations have rushed to set up a presence in Second Life and are using it for all manner of experiments, such as running virtual face-to-face meetings, testing or launching new product lines, marketing and brand building.

So, notebook in hand, our trusty scribe plunged into the metaverse, heading straight to Reuters Island—the news organization’s purpose-built space within Second Life—in the hope of finding kindred spirits. What he found, however, was a group of “people” gathered in an auditorium engaged in a virtual replica of a forum that was taking place in real time, in the real world, at Davos. At the forum, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the head of Britain’s pioneering low-cost airline EasyJet, was being needled by members of the Second Life audience into making disparaging comments about his company’s arch-rival, Ryanair. While the discussion was tame and Haji-Ioannou’s eventual dig at Ryanair did not generate any real-world repercussions, the implications of the meeting are profound and far-reaching. It demonstrated in no uncertain terms how real corporations are able to use the advanced technology of such virtual spaces to connect with real customers anywhere in the (real) world, and conduct real, meaningful business in a world that, really, doesn’t exist.

It is hardly surprising that big corporations are looking for ways to make use of this remarkable new medium. At the moment, though, their approach is decidedly “first life,” simply importing ideas from the real world and applying them to the virtual world—in much the same way that they used the Internet in its early days.

And just as the Internet spawned a whole new class of company—Amazon, eBay, Google, et al.—so these new virtual worlds will spawn their own new economy. That new economy will be defined and constrained not by national or regional boundaries or physical logistics but by the imaginations of its creators and the people who spend time there. The companies that benefit will be those that are visionary enough to see the real potential in the virtual.

Until next month,

Dan Keeler