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More Than a Game

43% of readers polled have experienced a virtual world like Second Life. Source: PC World.com poll.
Until recently, shared 3D online spaces were the province of massively multiplayer computer games like Ultima Online, EverQuest, World of Warcraft, and EVE Online. Over the decade that such games have been around, they've attracted an ever-growing audience of committed players. Though perhaps only half a million people have ever dipped their toe into Second Life, anywhere from 20 million to 40 million people around the world are regular visitors to 3D online game worlds, and the number continues to grow.

But persistent worlds like Second Life are more than games. Players don't get points for slaying orcs or blowing up spaceships in Second Life. Instead, residents are given the framework to create whatever they please--from houses and cars to clothing and space-age weaponry to detachable wings or anything else their imaginations come up with.

In fact, the entire landscape is composed of such creations; the company that runs the world provides only the virtual real estate that residents occupy. In that sense, worlds like Second Life are more of a platform than a game--a place where outlandish fantasies can be constructed, but also one where players can build useful tools. In this environment, the power of Web 2.0 to support the activity of millions of people as they freely borrow, build on, and mash up each other's ideas will meld with new expressive powers to create a medium where people can earn their livings, get their educations, fall in love, and consume their news and entertainment in a way that promises to bring people closer together than today's Internet has been able to.

Aficionados often refer to this collection of tools as the "metaverse," a term coined by Neal Stephenson in his prescient 1992 novel Snow Crash. And the impact of those tools can already be felt today.

"Entertainment, education, art, and business are already throwing spaghetti at the metaverse to see what sticks," says futurist Jerry Paffendorf, who convened a Metaverse Roadmap Summit this summer to plot the course of such technologies. "Over the next several years, we'll see this kind of technology mature to the point where it will not be uncommon to follow hyperlinks from the Web into immersive virtual spaces filled with other people. We're still learning to separate the unique efficiencies of this kind of technology from its inefficiencies, but the process is underway."

The process is leading to a convergence between our physical lives and our lives as they unfold in virtual worlds. In early 2006, 26-year-old Ron Blechner quit his job as a cellular network technician to set up shop in Second Life. The small company he founded, Out of Bounds Software, specialized in creating a virtual presence for nonprofit agencies and educational institutions, and developed a "3D wiki" that's being used to collect community feedback for the multi-million-dollar redesign of a public park in Queens, New York. While the pay wasn't great, Blechner's business steadily grew; and by the end of the year, he had merged his virtual-world services shop with a larger one. "This has been the best decision I've made in my life," says Blechner (known in Second Life as Hiro Pendragon).

More significantly, Queens will soon have a park designed, in part, within a virtual world.

Though they're just beginning to take hold, such online "places" are increasingly becoming a part of real-world business, marketing, and design plans. Architects now use Second Life as a platform for creating design prototypes for clients. Emergency-services departments use it to develop crisis response strategies. Starwood Hotels is using it to design and advertise its new Aloft properties. And the entertainment industry has caught on big-time. MTV's hit television show Laguna Beach recently unveiled a virtual version of itself in the online world of There.com, where fans can meet and socialize in a digital re-creation of the show's locations. And next August, Duran Duran will open its own "futuristic utopia" in Second Life, where the band will give concerts, showcase new acts, and drop in occasionally to chat with fans. "This for me is the most substantial move forward in entertainment technology that I've seen almost going back to MTV," the band's keyboardist and songwriter, Nick Rhodes, told me.

Hot on the heels of the entertainment industry are top-tier banks, public relations firms, auto manufacturers, consumer products makers, and other companies that see the potential of these new worlds and already have projects in the works. Serving them are small virtual-world services like Ron Blechner's, larger counterparts like Millions of Us and Rivers Run Red (which brought Duran Duran to Second Life), and the largest of all, the Electric Sheep Company, which has nearly 20 full-time employees, including Jerry Paffendorf. (Full disclosure: The Sheep are a sponsor of my blog, 3pointD.com.)

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Incredible Tech: Lies Ahead A Look Back
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