How should Japanese Financial Services companies (and other services industries) use virtual worlds?
"Second Life" has become something of a buzzword in Japan this year. The virtual world launched a Japanese language interface earlier this year and the mobile version will launch soon:
Last week I discovered Mizuho Bank's island on Second Life – (Of course, I didn't discover it by looking around on Second Life – I saw a banner ad on the Mizuho Bank web site). I decided to take a look around, but was a little disappointed — Sure, it's a professionally designed space with a fountain, an ice rink (?) and some fashionable furnishings. But there doesn't seem to be much point to it. The main activity seems to center on the "quiz" kiosks, which give multiple choice questions such as:
"If you won the top prize in the lottery (Three billion yen) and lined it all up in 10,000yen bills. How long would the line be?"
I noted that several questions related to the national lottery, which I thought was a bit strange. Does Mizuho want us all to gamble more? Mizuho's slogan "Channel To Discovery" makes me think that the bank could have used the island to provide a space for people to learn about buying a home or preparing for retirement or how to manage your bank account with your mobile phone.
I think Japanese service sector companies have difficulty identifying a business objective that they can fulfill with a virtual world. It's easy for manufacturers such as Nissan to understand that the environment allows them to try out new designs and gather feedback from customers without the expense of building even a prototype. Indeed Nissan put a "car vending machine" in second life long before the Japanese version existed. But that doesn't mean that service sector companies can't make good use of virtual worlds –
As early as 2005, Wells Fargo experimented with "Stagecoach Island" to educate teenagers about banking and financial matters. I discovered today that Wells Fargo has moved on from Second Life to a platform that they have more control over – it seems that the Second Life platform was public and open to pranksters who wanted to disrupt the activities:
On a similar note – In November I met with a professor from Teesside University's Digital Lab. The "dlab" recently collaborated with HSBC (I think) to create a "private island" on second life. The island is also aimed at teenagers, but the objective is somewhat different from Wells Fargo's initiative – The island was created to let school children know about careers in banking and financial services.
Since the island is private, it can only be accessed by kids at the participating schools – but a video of the island is available from the site below:
Apparently, the Teesside children who had the opportunity to use the island were enthusiastic enough to want to continue exploring it during their lunch breaks. It took some of their teachers by surprise.
It's clear to me that the service sector can make use of virtual worlds to demonstrate new services and gather feedback from potential users. But it seems that Japanese service companies have yet to realize the potential.