PORTLAND, Ore. Virtual worlds might seem like kid stuff, but they could end up making big contributions to society, according to Cory Ondrejka, senior vice president of digital strategies at EMI Music, told the Freescale Technology Forum in Orlando, Fla.
A co-creator of Second Life, an online virtual world with over 13 millions users, Ondrejka now fancies himself an expert on the technological and social requirements of product development among geographically-dispersed teams.
He stressed what he calls the complex interrelationship between innovation and learning, particularly the economic and technological impact of virtual worlds.
Second Life users can assume personalities punctuated by avatars and landscapes that mimic public and private institutions in the real world, as well as the social interactions among individuals and peer groups. Ondrejka, who left Second Life in December 2007 and resurfaced this month at EMI, claims his new role there will not be crafting a Second Life clone. However his expertise at virtual worlds remains his forte.
Second Life was alternatively viewed as either expanding "Internet addiction" or as a savior of the social fabric in its ability to connect people. Both expectations went to far, Ondrejka maintained.
"The situation is similar to when the telephone was invented, back when there were all sorts of rumors that the telephone would destroy society," said Ondrejka.
Instead, the telephone enriched society not only socially, but economically. In addition, it ushered in a new era of safety and security, allowing consumers to obtain products and services that would otherwise be inaccessible.
"We tend to overestimate the impact of technologies in short run, but underestimate them in long run," said Ondrejka.
Critics of virtual worlds have leveled many objections to the concept, according to Ondrejka, such as that Internet users could propagate damaging and potentially dangerous untruths. These naysayers, claimed that online communities would promulgate urban myths, since "ordinary" users are unqualified or too reactionary to make reasoned judgements on important issues.
To these critics, Ondrejka said time and experience with virtual worlds has proven the opposite to be true. Public, open, online forums now enable more accurate information to be propagated by instituting automated checks and balances without the need for potentially opinionated authorities. The more contributors to fact- checking, he said, the more accurate are the claimed facts.
"There are more errors in an edition of the Encyclopedia Britanica than in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia," said Ondrejka. Critics of the online encyclopedia dispute that claim.
Future virtual worlds will enable both online and real-world experiences to be both richer and safer. By mimicking the "fun" aspect of virtual worlds, real world experiences also will become happier, Ondrejka said. For instance, just as navigagting virtual worlds is fun, some users are discovering that "work" doesn't have to be drudgery.
Or as Ondrejka puts it, "why can't we demand [of our employers] that we love our work?"
As the fidelity of virtual worlds increases, they also promise to enhance the safety and security of the real-world, according to Ondrejko. They could enable urban planners, healthcare and other institutions to experiment with "what-if" scenarios in software before committing to real-world implementations.
"Playing with scenarios in the real world is dangerous, but is safe in virtual worlds," said Ondrejka.
Virtual worlds are already entering the boardroom in Vermont, said Ondfreka, where the nations first "virtual corporation" law was approved earlier this month. Until now, U.S. law required most corporations to hold board meetings with all members in attendance. Under a new Vermont law, board meetings may be conducted "virtually" through the use of video conferencing or Internet chat rooms.