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The Virtual Trust Spectrum

Last Friday, I had the privilege of speaking to several groups of college seniors on the Cisco campus. They came to get a better understanding of Cisco and some of our technologies, and we get the chance to speak with them about their role in potentially changing the world. As the “speaker”, I approached it as a wonderful opportunity to be a student of this captive audience of soon-to-be colleagues or future customers.My talk centered around the work that Cisco is doing on Networked Virtual Environments (NVEs) and how it has the potential to change how we interact with people and content, especially in a business context. The hyped and dreaded collaboration word. As would be expected of this age-group, at least 50-60% of each sessions claimed to be “gamers”, and most of them said they didn’t think twice about associating the avatars on the screen with the actual people driving them. This was in stark contrast to the professors that accompanied them to campus. After about an hour of discussing all sorts of interesting possibilities, I had one student sheepishly raise his hand and ask a simple but important question, “If we do all this communication in virtual worlds, do you think we’ll eventually struggle to communicate with people face-to-face?”. My gut reaction was to say, “No, because Virtual Worlds or NVEs are just one aspect of communications in the overall spectrum of building trust with others.”. I’ve even drawn pictures of this spectrum and struggled with where to put Virtual Worlds.EC_Trust_Levels.png. But over the weekend, I thought about this a little more, using a couple of interesting examples I heard recently. The first example was talking to my neighbor, who has a 12yr old daughter that is eager to get a cell-phone and use IM with her friends. One of her friends has already decided that she won’t accept voice calls, but rather will only communicate “virtually” via IM. I’m not sure if she’s sponsored by a social network yet, but this is definitely one end of the spectrum. The second example came from a Cisco banking customer that told us they doubted whether they’d ever be able to have a remote meeting with a high net-worth client within a virtual world. While they hadn’t tried it yet, their bankers intuition was telling them that people liked to look other people in the eye when exchanging checks with lots of zeros. Maybe Philip Rosedale or others might be able to test this intuition sometime soon, but it captures the other end of the spectrum. So I’m left to wonder, where do you see virtual world communication fitting into the communications Trust Spectrum? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it will vary depending on the situation and the users. But the question still remains…..will virtual communication change our inherent need for face-to-face communication?

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