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How to Keep Corporate Avatars Safe

- Updated November 25, 2011

Immersive virtual environments — the kind where you have an avatar walking around that looks like a cartoon version of you — are increasingly being used by companies for virtual meetings, training, and collaboration.

The idea is that a virtual immersive meeting gives you the same sense of presence that you get with a telepresence setup, but without the six-figure price tag — or the airplane tickets and hotel bills of a face-to-face meeting.

But it’s only fun and games until someone gets hurt. Here are a couple of important things to watch out for:

Document security
Immersive virtual meetings are a great way to share documents or work on documents collaboratively. Most platforms have built-in tools or third-party tools for showing PowerPoint slides, for example, and many allow desktop sharing. But if the platform you’re using hosts the meetings on servers you don’t control, then the documents mind wind up going places you don’t want them to go.

In addition, some platforms allow avatars to have inventories — the virtual equivalent of bottomless briefcases that your employees use to store their sales presentations, training materials, virtual clothing, furniture, even entire office buildings. When your employees walk their avatars out the virtual doors of your virtual meeting facility, they could be taking all this stuff with them, especially if you’re using a consumer-oriented virtual world like Second Life for the meetings.

Most secure option: an enterprise-focused virtual environment platform that runs on your own servers. On the high-end of the price range, this includes Teleplace and ProtoSphere. On the low end, the most popular choice is OpenSim, a free, open-source clone of Second Life.

Next best is an enterprise-oriented hosted product like VenueGen or ReactionGrid. ReactionGrid is currently hosting more than 100 private OpenSim-based worlds for customers, and also offers a Web-based world based on the Unity 3D platform called Jibe. You’re still dependent on the vendor’s IT staff behaving themselves, but at least your employee avatars won’t walk off with your stuff because there’s nowhere else for them to walk — you have an entire world to yourself.

Behavior guidelines
A virtual environment can allow almost unlimited scope for the imagination. You can hold a meeting on a cloud in the sky, on the bottom of the ocean, or inside a giant model of your company’s flagship product. And you can dress as a robot, as a mermaid, or as your boss. As you can imagine, with all this power comes great responsibility. Will your virtual outfit offend anyone? Is the lesbian strip club an appropriate setting for your corporate event?

The first place to start is with a code of conduct. You can use your existing policies about appropriate uses of social media as a starting point, or look to IBM’s Virtual World Guidelines as a model.

Employees should be aware of how you expect them to dress and to behave in a virtual world. Are they expected to wear business-appropriate clothing when meeting with clients, business partners, or colleagues? Or can they let their imaginations loose?

Can they use the same avatar both for work and for after-hours socializing or virtual role playing? If they leave the company, do they give up the avatar, or can they continue to use it?

What happens if two employees conduct a virtual relationship inside the virtual environment? Virtual sex is a big selling point of worlds like Second Life, and virtual relationships feel a lot like the old-fashioned kind. This may set your company up for potential sexual harassment and hostile environment lawsuits down the line. Except now the harasser doesn’t have to work in the same office as his or her victim — they can be on different continents, thanks to modern technology.

Enterprise-focused vendors tend to limit the possibilities for dress and behavior significantly. Your company isn’t likely to have adult animations, furniture, and accessories in its custom-built virtual environment. Consumer-focused worlds like Second Life offer almost unlimited choice in this area, however. Meanwhile, the enterprise vendors are slowly rolling out more customization features, which could allow employees to create and share inappropriate clothing or other content.

The final word: If your company is holding, or planning to hold, meetings in a virtual environment, then consider putting in place usage guidelines and making employees aware of those guidelines before they use these environments. Your company should also consider using a platform with a focus on enterprise users, since these vendors are more likely to pay attention to compliance issues and to have features in place or in development to ensure the safety and security of these environments.

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