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Business - Written by on Thursday, January 15, 2009 11:41 - 10 Comments

Can friendly avatars save Nortel?

I’ll start off here by stating the obvious – yesterday was a bad day for Nortel.  Moreover, in this article, there’s some discussion about a few poor attempts at innovation, summarized by the notion that ”Web 2.0 products just didn’t seem to fit for Nortel”.  One such innovation attempt has been Project Chainsaw, which created the recently-launched Web.Alive program.

Web.alive is a three-dimensional program that looks and feels similar to Second Life.  Companies can purchase the program and use the virtual environment for training, collaboration, hosting conferences, and most notably, sales and marketing.

The program is, if nothing else, intriguing.  This blogger speculated (albeit skeptically) about the benefits for using this “Second Life meets business world” technology for business communication.  He was impressed by Nortel’s licensing of the Unreal Gaming Engine to create an aesthetically appealing platform.  For a visual explanation, here’s a youtube link of Chief Architect Arn Hyndman talking about web.alive.

One company that clearly believes in this technology is Lenovo, the world’s 4th largest PC manufacturer.  Lenovo is the first business to make use of web.alive, and launched the Lenovo eLounge late last week.  The Lenovo eLounge is, at the moment, basically being used as a sales venue, where customers can view the products and speak to each other (and salespeople) in real time, through their avatars.

So on the day that Nortel announced bankruptcy, I decided to check out the technology that, in the words of their CTO Phil Edholm, “fuel[s] the engine behind Nortel’s success”.   Here’s a link to the Lenovo eLounge. If you aren’t interested in buying a Lenovo product, wait until after 9 pm to check it out – for reasons I’ll explain.

When I registered for my avatar and checked out the Lenovo eLounge last night, I was surprised who I ran into.  The other avatars in there (this was last night around 11 pm) weren’t Lenovo sales reps.  It was Nortel’s Project Chainsaw Design team, most notably Nick Sauriol and Brent Hadden, who were more than happy to chat with me about the development of web.alive and the opportunities it provides for enterprises.  On the day when Nortel filed for bankruptcy protection, this team sounded optimistic, and assured me that more companies are in the process of using web.alive to create their own virtual lounges.  They also explained that the Lenovo sales avatars generally punch out around 9pm, so the Nortel team hangs out in the lounge after that to answer questions, provide tech help and generally explain the web.alive technology to newcomers.  If you find anything in this article or the links here of interest, I’d definately recommend dropping by the lounge to visit the Project Chainsaw team.  These guys love to chat about their technology (given that the Lenovo eLounge is their pilot, and it’s been released for less than a week).  They’re also happy to give you a tour of the lounge and show off some of its unique features and services (which you can read about here under the “services” page).

From a sales perspective, think of traditional online sales, with facilitated customer-to-customer discussion, on-hand concierges, and the use of avatar technology that, so far, has been reserved mainly for entertainment purposes (like the virtual Barbie world, for instance).

Now, what’s my take on the Lenovo eLounge?  I would probably go back if I were looking to purchase a Lenovo product, but I think the site could be improved by more added features.  Aside from previewing Lenovo products and speaking to sales avatars, there isn’t a whole lot to do in the eLounge, so it won’t sell much on entertainment or additional features (although I enjoyed speaking to the Nortel team).  That’s not to say, however, that future web.alive-based sites can’t improve on this pilot (which I’m sure they will).

Obviously, there’s some issues, such as the financial health of both Nortel (as mentioned) and Lenovo (who recently announced restructuring).  Most of all, I question whether a Lenovo-only site has any benefit over companies that incorporate their sales “stores” into a larger realm, as Microsoft has with Second Life

That said, I do find this new site very intriguing and worth following.  When researching for a purchase, it’s definately easier to discuss verbally, via avatar, than to post on a message board and wait for a response.

Would you use this service if you were interested in a Lenovo product?  I’d love to hear your opinions on it.



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Arn Hyndman
Jan 15, 2009 12:52

Despite the natural comparisons, web.alive is really nothing like Second Life. Yes it has 3D environments and avatars, but it doesn’t try to be a “second life” – it is focused on being a communication tool for your real life.

web.alive is designed to bring state of the art spatial voice communications (with a slick visual representation of participants) to an enterprise’s existing web infrastructure. In the Lenovo eLounge, web.alive is mashed up with Lenovo’s rich web content such that users can discuss the ins and outs of Lenovo products with each other and with Lenovo.

Other organizations are mashing up web.alive with Learning Management Systems, shared document editing suites, social and business networking applications, and so on. The possibilities are endless.

Dennis Shiao
Jan 15, 2009 13:34

Yes, I’d use this service if I was interested in Lenovo laptops. That being said, I’m atypical, as I work in virtual worlds and virtual tradeshows.

I spent some time in eLounge last week and posted the following review of it:


Alex Marshall
Jan 15, 2009 15:07

Arn – thank you for weighing in, the possible uses you cite show some very intriguing potential for the future of web.alive. I’d be interested to hear more comments from our readers on those possibilities.

Dennis – That’s an excellent review, and gives a much more in-depth analysis than my post did.

To all other readers – I encourage you to read Dennis’s review to get a clearer picture of web.alive and the Lenovo eLounge.

Daryl Kulak
Jan 15, 2009 20:45

Okay, here’s my thought. I would not go to this virtual Lenovo store to talk to people about the laptops, I don’t think.

However, if I could go there and someone could take me (I’m serious here) on a flying tour through the innerds of a Lenovo computer to show me the features inside, see everything working and how Lenovo’s stuff is better/different, I would definitely go to see that.

I’m not joking. I think a computer demo could become hugely different and interesting. The question to me is not “How do we duplicate a store in a virtual world?” the question is “What can we do in a virtual world that we could never do in a real lift store??”

Maybe it’s just me.

Alex Marshall
Jan 15, 2009 23:19

Daryl – I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with that last question.

When I wrote about a need for additional features, that’s the type of angle I’m talking about – providing visitors with some sort of experience (whether than be entertainment or education) to draw traffic to the site.

Excellent comment, thank you for posting.

Jan 16, 2009 16:17

I dont really see the point in using Avatars to communicate when the input devices are a keyboard, mouse, microphone.

But if the people communicating were wearing a sensor suit similar to what is used in motion-capture systems, then you would have a complete and natural communications system. The avatars would actually have a purpose.

There would have to be serious applications for this like martial arts or dance instruction, sports/ fitness, rehab training – basically any group movement activities by geographically separated people.

But for a meeting, group discussion, white-boarding session, presentation – do we need avatars in virtual space?


Nic Sauriol
Jan 17, 2009 13:11


Interestingly enough, this is something we are working on with Lenovo… Stay tuned…

Et on reparle des espaces collaboratifs virtuels | Entreprise 2.0
Jan 23, 2009 6:48

[...] passer l’offensive pour sa solution web.alive de serious game qui risque de disparaitre : Can friendly avatars save Nortel?. Affaire suivre sur leur blog. La solution de serious gaming de [...]

GD Manning
Jan 25, 2009 18:59

“What can we do in a virtual world that we could never do in a real lift store??”

Like the man sez.

Catherine Thorn
Apr 16, 2009 9:35

This technology does have exciting possibilities. The major advantage of virtual space over real life stores is the ability to visually display and explore concepts that are difficult to communicate verbally. For this reason, I agree with Daryl Kulak’s comment that having a virtual tour of the insides of a Lenovo laptop would excite and attract new customers. I think this idea could even be brought a step further. There are customer engagement possibilities that would be beneficial to explore. Instead of simply using the technology to sell more computers that have already been developed, the technology can be employed to develop new product concepts. This technology has the ability to transform the traditional idea of focus groups into something much more. Lenovo could invite a group of “techies” to participate in an interactive product concept discussion, in which the participants could actually move and change virtual components of the new product as they explain their ideas.

This type of advanced, visual form of communication could also be beneficial for international companies that require complicated engineering, such as automotive companies. These companies could employ the technology to create effective, international engineering teams, allowing the company to benefit from accessing a larger talent pool and the different perspectives that diversity creates.

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