Avatars will become the big buzz this year, thanks to director James Cameron's pending flick of the same name. They've been all the rage among video gamers for years. Now they're also sprouting up in the workplace, and experts predict they will emerge as a key trend in the coming years. For puzzled employers and perplexed employees, what's the sense of using a digital person rather than a real one?
ORIGIN OF TERM:
av·a·tar . Etymology: Sanskrit avatârahò descent, from avatarati he descends, from ava- away + tarati he crosses over. Date: 1784.
1: the incarnation of a Hindu deity (as Vishnu)
2 a: an incarnation in human form b: an embodiment (as of a concept or philosophy) often in a person.
Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary
MODERN-DAY AVATAR: An electronic image, often a person, that represents and is controlled by a computer user. It's most often used in computer games, and in a virtual world called Second Life. A growing number of employers are now using avatars, in Second Life and elsewhere, as a cost-effective, new way to share ideas, recruit people and hold conferences.
SECOND LIFE: One of the most popular virtual worlds on the Internet, Second Life was created by Linden Lab in 2003 and has more than a million active users worldwide. Source: lindenlab.com
FIVE COMMON WORKPLACE APPLICATIONS:*Recruiting - Hosting job fairs or information sessions for potential new hires.
*Training - Employees, using avatars, can role-play or go through simulations.
*Research and development - Workers can congregate to discuss new ideas, products or services.
*Meetings/events/conferences - Employees can gather electronically at a lower cost than physical gatherings.
*Team-building exercises - Employees can gather to play games or do exercises.
FIVE COMMON CHALLENGES :
*Needs high-speed Internet - Not everyone has enough bandwidth to participate, especially in rural communities.
*Requires training - Not everyone may be comfortable using an electronic alter ego.
*May not be private - Companies may worry that their secrets could get leaked.
* Conversing can be onerous - In groups, using instant messaging rather than just speaking can be awkward.
*Tough to verify a person's online identity - It's hard to know if the person at a job fair or conference is who they say they are.
Xerox Canada Ltd.
Where: Xerox Innovation Island, Second Life.
When: 2006 to present.
Uses: Networking, communicating, meetings, webcasts, product launches, team building. Usefulness? "As researchers, we are always looking for ways of improving how we collaborate with each other. I see opportunities in areas where we can exchange ideas with our colleagues around the world," says Adela Goredema, research scientist at the Xerox Research Centre of Canada in Mississauga.
Drawback: "There are privacy issues, because it's an uncontrolled environment. So we are very cautious of what we do on the Island" in terms of developing new products. The other challenge: "We use instant messaging to talk, so there is a delay sometimes in the conversation." Future: "We expect avatars will play a bigger role in the future. As a global company, there is potential - we're trying to see how we can use it, especially for communicating and collaborating."
Vancouver Police Department
When: May, 2007 (and may use again).
Where: recruiting room, Second Life.
Use: online recruiting.
Usefulness? About 30 avatars attended the session, hundreds have watched the video of the event and it's gotten publicity around the world. "I'm getting media requests, even now, two, three years later, from places like Australia, New Zealand, Italy," says Howard Chow, a sergeant with the Vancouver Police recruiting unit. "It's been beneficial on a number of fronts. It shows our organization is progressive and that we're looking at outside mediums."
Drawback: "Developing avatars was challenging, and getting used to the technology." Future: "We'd like to do it again, but have nothing planned in the near future. We'd also consider using it in different ways," such as for training, he added.
Government of Ontario
When: 12-week pilot project in 2008 and now a permanent presence - which means it owns an island.
Where: OPS Careers Island, Second Life (OPS stands for Ontario Public Service). Use: online job fair. Usefulness? "This is a geography base of millions of users on Second Life, and over 9,000 visitors to our island from across the world. I can't [otherwise]buy that kind of market and outreach. It's definitely cost-effective," says Glen Padassery, manager of outreach with the Ontario government's youth and new professionals secretariat. Drawback : "Like any new technology, getting buy-in and approval is important. We wrestled with legal issues around content ownership, privacy issues on collecting information, technological issues on getting the right level of IT support, to name a few." Future: "Social networking and virtual worlds let us think about distance learning, collaborating and connecting with the public in whole new ways. This evolving tool is changing the way people think about work."
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: "It's going to become mainstream in the next few years. It gives you the ability to be able to work from anywhere and work with people who aren't physically there. It's a low-cost way of meeting and sharing knowledge."
--Chris Collins, San Francisco-based general manager of enterprise at Linden Labs, part of parent company of Second Life
"Some of my preliminary research suggests when you use a virtual world to learn a job function, you learn quicker, you're more committed and involved, and it accelerates the learning process in a way that other modes of training do not."
-- Ken Hudson, managing director of the Virtual World Design Centre at Loyalist College "I think it's the next big thing."
--Steve Prentice, productivity expert and president of Toronto-based consulting firm Bristall Morgan