Usability engineering and social presence for interaction, collaboration and learning in Second Life for the provision of real-world financial services
Virtual environments offer an exciting platform for social science research. The persistent nature of online virtual worlds such as Second Life however has increased the potential for both companies and institutions looking to establish a virtual presence and researchers looking to measure the evolving forms of human behaviour displayed when interacting within them. Since the use of the Internet has become widespread, commercial enterprises are particularly interested in exploring the opportunities that virtual environments may hold for them as the stereotype of what constitutes a ‘typical’ computer user gradually becomes broken down within contemporary society. Second Life and virtual worlds alike deviate from what might be categorized as a game, serving more as extensions of reality than escapes from it. Virtual worlds have been said to be dichotomous in that they may act as play spaces as well as extensions of the real world. Much existing research on computer-mediated communication and online behaviour has focused upon the differences between computer-mediated and face-to-face communication, and has provided in-depth reports on online communities. A growing body of research, however, focuses a more integrative view of computer mediated communication, looking at how online time fits with and complements other aspects of an individual’s everyday life. This work uses the virtual environment of Second Life to integrate the virtual and the real for real-world financial benefits and analyses the ways in which they intersect. The research presented here provides evidence for the thesis that the persistent online virtual world of Second Life can act as a valid and effective user interface metaphor for the financial services sector. The theory of social presence when applied to human-computer interaction provided the basis of this work. A practical metric is developed by which a bank could effectively create an optimum virtual environment to provide a new and innovative service for its customers by measuring levels of perceived social presence in interaction, collaboration and learning scenarios. Financial institutions and companies alike can use these results and turn them into practical tools to create a virtual environment for customers or staff to interact within that can project them to the forefront of technological innovation and add to a reputation as an ever developing and forward thinking company.