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ibm-virtualworld.bmpIBM, one of the nation’s largest companies, sees a big future in 3D worlds — but it probably won’t be with Second Life.

IBM has been eager to try out 3D marketing, for reasons we’ll get to. Like other companies, it created a virtual Business Center in Second Life (you’ll need to have an account at SL to go there), staffed by live sales avatars during business hours. It had more than 2,000 visitors in the first two weeks it was open and IBM’s island was rated first among corporate islands by at least one study. It has led to at least two sales leads, the company says. Visitors can pull down technical manuals and click to download PDFs straight from Second Life.

However, it chose Second Life only because the San Francisco company is the most popular virtual site; other corporate marketers were trying it out too.

However, IBM doesn’t care much about Second Life, and is now looking for other venues. A virtual world that offers companies like IBM an open architecture, or interoperability with other virtual worlds and sites, would be a big hit, suggested Lee Dierdorf, VP of web strategy and enablement, in a conversation with VentureBeat Friday. “What started me down this path wasn’t Second Life,” he said of his desire to experiment with 3D, but rather “Tom Cruise in Minority Report.” He recalls watching Cruise creating vignettes from different action movies, and realizing how powerful the visual experience can be for researching. “Do I think anonymous avatars dressed in funny clothes are the future of business? No, that doesn’t interest me.” Second Life remains too closed and quirky, he said, for IBM to settle on it long-term.

His comments come as Forbes publishes an article suggesting that corporate islands haven’t had many visitors. Erik Hauser of Swivel Media, Wells Fargo’s digital agency, says in the piece: “Going into Second Life now is the equivalent of running a field marketing program in Iraq.” David Churbuck, Web-marketing vice president for computer maker Lenovo, the company that bought IBM’s personal computing division and which doesn’t have a presence in Second Life, adds: “There is nothing to do in Second Life except, pardon my bluntness, try to get laid.”

Now, IBM’s corporate homepage ranks among the top seven globally, with 24 million visits to its domain in April.

So Dierdorf is giving plenty of thought about how to structure the site. He showed us the latest features during our meeting. They’re impressive: AJAX lets you drill from the IBM.com homepage down three levels of hierarchy, by simply mousing over links — getting you directly to the division you want, with a single click. There’s more, such as tracking features that note your interests and then providing personalized tips on the right side of the page. We looked at HP.com, IBM’s chief rival, and it doesn’t offer the same degree of navigation.

However, despite all this stuff, Dierdorf is convinced that a 3D technology is even more powerful for customers.

3D offers a way to search with periphery vision, and breaks out of the scroll-up-down-click-and-maybe-get-lost mode. If IBM offered customers a virtual archive, complete with stacks of shelves, where customers can stroll into this archive room and pull out any information the want — or ask a virtual librarian for more help — efficiency would be increased substantially. IBM has twice the content of Google, Dierdorff says, enough pages to fill an average small town library (37,000 80-page books). So far, the 3D experiment has worked in Second Life, but he’s looking for something easier and more open.

(Image courtesy of CNET)

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