I was standing in a spacious entryway, chatting with the chief science officer at Sun Microsystems. His short-cropped hair, V-neck sweater and glasses were a sure sign of technical prowess.
Peeking just over the horizon, the sun cast a warm glow over a nearby server rack. I was wearing a Sun baseball hat, a T-shirt with the Java logo emblazoned on the front and a purple lapel pin. I was also holding a Sun helium-filled balloon that was at least three times as big as my head.
"Nice facility you have here," I said, as he suddenly vanished into thin air.
"It happens once in a while," said another Sun employee.
In the virtual world of Second Life, anything goes - even if your goal is to build a corporate brand, hold ad hoc user group meetings, sponsor a conference or help end users find a video card driver.
Here's a list of the top eight sites worth visiting. To find them, just register at SecondLife.com, install, click Search and type the company name to find its island and transport. Save us a T-shirt if you go!
With as many as 230 employees actively involved, and almost two dozen islands (some public, some private), IBM is intent on showcasing more than just its products and services - it has even invested $100 million in real US dollars for companies to showcase their ideas. For example, there's a Circuit City store on one island where you can ‘test out’ camcorders and HDTV sets. IBM is currently toying with the idea of providing design services for other companies that want a Second Life presence.
What makes the IBM presence even more interesting, though, is what takes place behind closed doors. Regular ‘brainstorming’ meetings with clients have produced interesting ideas, such as a grocer that would sell items in Second Life and have them delivered to homes, and a fuel company that would hold regular training session for employees - which would not be open to the public.
"I think IBM is a little more serious about why it's there," says Laszlo. "They're using their space for collaboration among their various R&D staffs around the world, and experiments on UI evolution and virtual environments."
Hopefully, the ideas will all make it to the physical realm.
Second only to IBM in its innovative use of a virtual world, the Pontiac presence on Second Life is quite impressive: Its red logo is found on carpeted halls and sprawling multilevel glass buildings.
There's a dealership where you can take recent models out for a test drive, such as the Pontiac Solstice GXP. A car garage lets you customise vehicles to your liking, including the paint job and styling.
The most interesting feature on the island is an application for Second Lifers to own land on and build whatever they want, for free - including kart-racing tracks, jet-pack courses, skyscrapers or just about anything they can think of. It's a unique model because Pontiac pays for the land to encourage innovation.
The Second Life teleport blurb for Sun Microsystems says the company has a "100 percent focus on network computing”.When I visited, this popular destination was brimming with client/server-related chat sessions: two jet-pack-wearing visitors were talking about mobile phones and Java, and several people gathered around a product demo that shows the cooling effects of Sun servers in a data centre.
"Second Life allows us to do things we could never do in real life," says Chris Melissinos, Sun's chief gaming officer. "People feel less inhibited and will ask more direct questions about products."
The company has no plans to sell products directly through Second Life, however, noting that the platform is not reliable or scalable. Game servers can only hold about 70 people at once, according to Linden Labs. And there's no file encryption. In fact, to run a Second Life server, companies have to open multiple ports in their corporate firewalls - which tells hackers exactly how to break into company resources. (Most companies use a hosted service to avoid any potential break-ins.)
Dell Island is mostly a portal for advancing the company brand, although there are a few sights worth seeing: a re-creation of one of the company's commercials (the one with the giant purple gorilla), a factory modelled after a real Dell facility, a PC museum and Michael Dell's college dorm room.
You can also use a drafting table to build the basic components of a real-world computer, such as the Dell XPS 710, and see what it would look like on an office desk. When you are ready to buy, a link takes you to a secure website where you type in your real name and credit card number.
Laura Thomas, Dell's corporate online editor and main Second Life evangelist, told me she would like to see more metrics in Second Life for customer visits. She also said the company is planning on re-creating the Dell plant-a-tree initiative to help lower individual carbon footprints.
Reuters' concrete-and-sidewalk location in Second Life has a decidedly business feel, with tall downtown skyscrapers and lush fountains. Yet, it does attract curious Second Lifers who want to discuss the hot topics of the day. During my visit, several discussions involved the recent Virginia Tech shootings. A Reuters News Center device, available for free, feeds you the news of the day on a handheld reader.
What's really interesting is that Reuters has a handful of journalists who wander through Second Life - visiting campuses such as Dell and Sun - to find news stories that make it onto the real-world service. This model of ‘virtual journalism’ shows how a virtual presence can add credibility to a reporter who asks questions, can record chat history and follow up by phone and email for fact checking.
IT pros definitely fawn all over Cisco Systems. This well-populated island showcases its products in a cleanly designed "connected home" of the future - although it's a little heavy on marketing. There are routers, streaming media devices and VoIP phones scattered all about the two-level dwelling.
The real draw, though, are the company-sponsored user group meetings with keynote speakers such as John Chambers, Cisco's CEO, and Tom Malone, an MIT luminary. Second Lifers apparently formed the first groups autonomously and asked for Cisco sponsorship after the group swelled in numbers.
During one event I attended, several techie conversations erupted spontaneously in a meeting room. Product demos allow potential customers to see how a network switch actually fits into a data centre, something that usually requires an in-person executive briefing in the physical world.
"For someone who wants to learn about advanced devices, a virtual world is a good environment for that," says Joe Laszlo, a research director of broadband media at JupiterResearch and Second Life expert.
The wood floors at H&R Block Island (search for "HR Block" on Second Life) are a subtle reminder: This is a top-tier financial consulting portal, modelled after the 12,000 office locations worldwide.
Despite the stuffy decor, there is an interesting point-of-sale angle. For $100 Linden (the currency in Second Life, which is about £35), you can buy the new Tango online tax preparation software. No discount, though - that was the same price offered on the H&R Block site until a "limited-time offer" was instituted.
The bundle includes access to virtual scooters, dance shoes, a T-shirt and other paraphernalia. Of course, the real transaction takes place on the web, where you type in an access code.
Unlike Dell Island, where you can build a virtual PC and then buy it online, H&R Block seems to want to conduct real business in Second Life, perhaps as a proof-of-concept. Now that's an innovative spirit!
Best Buy Geek Squad
Geeks unite! At Geek Squad Island, the most impressive offering - apart from the bumper car ride that's modelled after the original Geek Squad vehicles - is deep technical advice.
Real-world employees keep regular hours from 6pm to 3am and will chat about any topic. I asked about video card support for DX10 games and which USB keydrives work for ReadyBoost, and an agent knew the answers immediately.
According to Diana Garrett, a Geek Squad spokeswoman (and my tour guide), employees will consult for free until a customer needs to buy a product - for that, they have to call or email.
There are no giveaways, though, and the place is dead during non-working hours.
John Brandon is a freelance writer and book author who worked as an IT manager for 10 years.