A Insurance & Technology we are conditioned to avoid getting swept up in hype about the latest and greatest technology. But it's been impossible to ignore the buzz about Second Life, the high-profile "3D online digital world imagined, created and owned by its residents" (its own description). Talk about viral marketing! Suddenly, I can't avoid reading and hearing about this virtual world. Media outlets ranging from I&T sibling publications InformationWeek and Optimize to CNN and Fortune all have reported recently on the growth of Second Life, developed by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, and how the "game" is gaining more participants -- and also starting to work its way into the corporate world.
While right now Second Life primarily may give participants a chance to play out various fantasies (use your imaginations), it's also being explored as a possible way to enhance collaboration and creativity. For example, major players in the technology world, including Sun Microsystems and IBM, are tapping into Second Life as a medium for training, meetings and corporate presentations. Furthermore, commerce, including payments, occurs in the Second Life virtual world.
Disclosure: I am totally not an online gamer. I have no interest in computer games and barely even played Pac Man in its heyday. But in the interest of journalistic research, I just opened a Second Life account. So far, all I have done is create an identity (avatar) and select a Second Life name (Floradora Hitchcock -- in honor of my childhood parakeet and one of my favorite film directors); at press time, I hadn't actually downloaded the software yet (I was on deadline, after all.), but I'll keep you posted as I virtually reinvent myself.
Anyway, it's easy to start thinking of financial services transactions that could be carried out by avatars in the Second Life virtual world -- for example, an agent selling a life insurance policy to a young couple, or a broker and business executive hammering out a commercial lines contract. What would be the value of such virtual interactions? Apart from entertainment, it's hard to say -- today. But cultural, economic and demographic trends -- toward a younger, tech-savvy population that works remotely and relies on high-speed electronic communications -- make it clear that today's definition of a "typical" financial services interaction is likely to become obsolete before too long. It's not too early for insurers to get their virtual ducks (or avatars) in a row.
Katherine Burger is Editorial Director of Bank Systems & Technology and Insurance & Technology, members of UBM TechWeb's InformationWeek Financial Services. She assumed leadership of Bank Systems & Technology in 2003 and of Insurance & Technology in 1991. In addition to ... View Full Bio