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There’s been a lot of talk lately about virtual reality and augmented reality. For most, the only name that comes to mind is Second Life (www.secondlife.com), a Website that lets users build virtual spaces and create avatars as a way to socialize and create virtual businesses. Although Second Life has provided opportunities for entrepreneurs and small businesses to test the waters and develop company strategies, it hasn’t been without its limitations, says Antonio Collier, 40, founder and CEO of Vzillion Inc. (www.vzillion.com), a virtual Internet platform (or, as Collier calls it, VirtuReal) designed to more effectively connect businesses with customers online and off.
Collier, a serial entrepreneur and former Second Life denizen who made a name for himself developing a popular live pizza delivery service in Second Life, also created a virtual nightclub in the space. “It was developed to sell music for independent artists, and it took off,” says Collier. “People from all around the world came, and that was big for us,” he adds. Still, there was one glaring problem: “We couldn’t control a lot of the things happening there.” Collier says the plethora of adult entertainment businesses and their respective clientele, as well as the prevalence of “escapism,” was a driving force in his decision to develop an alternative. To be fair, however, Second Life has proven valuable in some spaces, such as education, where academic institutions and educators have used it to help them teach, collaborate, and develop training methods.
Miami-based Vzillion, launched in 2006, is a bit of a hybrid animal–part virtual world and part intelligent search agent–that lets companies create 3-D environments for their real-world products and services. Potential customers get the benefit of a unified 3-D user interface and experience, with real-world benefits. Vzillion, which is free to use, uses its I.C.O.R.E. platform (Intelligent Consumer Oriented Real-Time Environment) to help users create a “home” for all their online activities, so that from a VirtuReal apartment, they can access social networking sites and online shopping spaces, as well as other tools and services they use. That space is then accessible on a variety of devices, including mobile phones and television.
“Online, there is a piece missing,” says Collier of what’s currently available. “We have home pages and startup pages, social networking sites, but there is no home for me on the Web right now. And there is a simple, basic human need to feel like ‘I have a home.’ You have to create that for the user and establish some kind of persona.”
The advantages of going virtual cannot be ignored on the business side, says Reginald Best, 48, COO and president of ProtonMedia (www.protonmedia.com), a Lansdale, Pennsylvania-based provider of virtual world technology. Proton’s software platform, ProtoSphere, is based on Microsoft technologies and lets companies create and customize virtual environments for training, meetings, product launches, learning events, and collaboration, among other uses. “It’s a solution that can be installed in an enterprise customer’s data center, or we have an option of actually hosting it as SaaS [software as a service] solution,”Â says Best. Additionally, ProtoSphere provides government-grade security.
“[This] is not a game, this is real business technology and there are some real and substantial benefits to applying [it] to your business,” says Best. He also emphasizes that unlike consumer-oriented sites, such as Second Life, ProtoSphere is positioned as a collaboration tool aimed squarely at the enterprise: ProtonMedia’s roster includes customers in the pharmaceutical and energy industries–large companies with employees worldwide that have concerns about security and issues of control, for example. For dedicated hosted arrangements, pricing starts at $83 per month per concurrent user, 100 users minimum. For perpetual licensing arrangements, pricing starts at $1,000 per concurrent user license, 100 users minimum.
So far, according to Best, the greatest challenge to virtual technologies is a lack of awareness that these tools exist for businesses. Virtual tools allow companies to improve productivity and provide better business outcomes, he notes. For example, says Best, one client using ProtoSphere reduced the cost of an annual event from $5 million to just over $1 million. How? The company significantly reduced travel and accommodation costs and other related expenses. Additionally, says Best, according to the feedback the company received, the event allowed for a different kind of communication and a great deal of collaboration among employees; if a presentation was missed, for example, an employee could easily access it, since materials and other information were recorded and made available.
Unlike ProtonMedia, Vzillion is aimed at the business to consumer space, and Collier says his emphasis is on engagement for both consumers and businesses. “Sites are fragmented,” notes Collier, and because of this, it’s easy for consumers to become disconnected. “Businesses can use Vzillion to create an environment for their product and develop a better connection with the consumer. And consumers, no matter what application they use, can engage from their personal, virtual space.”
Despite Best’s and Collier’s notions, is Virtual reality simply pie-in-the-sky technology? According to Best, the virtual environment market is a small but growing one, estimated at $50 million to $75 million. The unified communications and collaboration marketplace, on the other hand, which is where ProtonMedia is positioning itself, is a $55 billion to $60 billion marketplace–and both spaces are growing.
This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.