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Plenty of people are skeptical that enterprises will embrace virtual worlds as a venue for doing serious business. IBM, on the other hand, is a total believer that 3-D worlds such as Second Life augur the future of online commerce.

IBM is announcing a partnership with Second Life producer Linden Lab today to create an enterprise-class version of Second Life behind a corporate firewall. IBM and Linden Lab believe that the move will strengthen the security of the virtual world, and thereby make it more attractive to corporations who are considering using it as a business platform, said Jim Spohrer, director of service research at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose.

With the added security, businesses can enable employees to login into Second Life for corporate training purposes. (No, they’re not going to use their avatars to have virtual sex or pretend to be the opposite gender.) Spohrer said that businesses can rent areas known as “islands” in Second Life and run dress rehearsals for everything from a fire drill to a hospital emergency.

IBM has more than 5,000 employees using Second Life for purposes such as sales training or collaborating across different geographic regions. The company will also allow the employees to explore Second Life. And whey will be able to cross into IBM’s secure firewalled corporate network, much like users do with a virtual private network, which creates a secure connection from the Internet into a corporation so that users can log into enterprise applications from their homes.

The firewall will also prohibit regular users of Second Life from gaining access to portions of Second Life that are available only to IBM employees. Spohrer said that the companies have to work out exactly what to move behind the firewall to guarantee security.

It will be interesting to see whether the productivity of IBM employees goes down because they’re goofing off in a virtual world, or if it goes up because they’re using training applications in Second Life.

Spohrer said that a group of IBM researchers at Almaden have built an application dubbed “rehearsal studio” that allows professionals to hold online collaboration sessions with each other to talk about real-world problems. They can use the studio to do “what if” analysis or learn how to make presentations to executives. The sessions are recorded to provide feedback to the employees.

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