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Virtual World Business And Development Information

PC Mag Rates Second Life

Posted by SIM on December 30, 2006

Second Life
REVIEW DATE:  12.21.06
By Cade Metz

Like There.com, Second Life is an online alternate universe, a 3D virtual world that exists only on the Net. Using your very own 3D avatar, you can lead, yes, a second life, mimicking everything from a night on the town to a career in real estate. It's a way of interacting with other people, but it's also a way of building a new persona. And if you're serious about it, you can even make some money.

The basic look and feel of the service is very similar to There.com, combining the 3D graphics of a first-person shoot-'em-up with the conversational dynamic of an online chat room. The difference is that Second Life is a much larger service, with a virtual economy that's making an enormous impact on real-world bank accounts. In the past 60 days, according to the company, nearly 700,000 people have used the service, and at least one user claims to have made more than $1 million selling virtual goods and services.

Sound ridiculous? Maybe it is. But the fact of the matter is that Second Life has struck a chord with a pretty significant portion of the population. It started with the same basic idea as There.com, but its users—with almost complete control over the creation of content—have taken the service to the next level. The graphics aren't any better, but there are so many more possibilities.

The basic service is free. At sign-up, you choose an avatar from a handful of prebuilt animations, and in minutes, you're dropped into Second Life's virtual world, free to wander the nearly 95 "square miles" of 3D graphics without paying a penny. Second Life comprises three mainland locales and thousands of smaller islands, all teeming with people looking to socialize—at least in the virtual sense. When you walk up to someone, you can instantly text-chat, just as you would over IM. As I said in my There.com review, you can think of these virtual worlds as first-person chat-'em-ups.

Like There.com, Second Life gives you free rein to change the look and feel of your avatar. You can become almost anyone you want to be. You can change your clothing, hair, and even skin, and you can be a bit more, well, risqué than you would at the PG-13 There.com. Second Life is open only to people 18 years old and older.

Unlike There.com, the core service does not allow for voice chat, but companies such as Vivox are offering voice-chat apps that tie into the service. Even so, there's something to be said for the anonymity associated with text chat. It's harder to become someone else if Second Lifers can actually hear your voice.

Linden Dollars

At its most basic, Second Life serves as a kind of chat room on steroids. But if you really want a second life, you'll need Linden dollars, virtual currency named for the creators of the service, Linden Labs. With Linden dollars, you can purchase anything from virtual clothes and virtual food to virtual land.

When you sign up for an account, you'll receive 250 Linden dollars simply by entering your credit card number. Your card isn't charged at that point, but the company knows that with your number in hand, it will be easier to charge you in the future. If you want additional Linden dollars, you can purchase them at any time. For $9.95 a month, you can also sign up for a premium account that provides 300 Linden a week.

In this virtual world, exchange rates will vary—yes, that's actually the case—but right now, $1 buys you about 270 Linden dollars on the open market. No one signs up for a premium account merely for the Linden dollars. Rather, they do it to gain access to real estate. Switching to a premium account is the only way to buy land in Second Life. And we all know how important land is. Once you purchase land, you can build a house, furnish it, stock the refrigerator, and invite friends for a cookout. Buying land gives you an anchor in this virtual world. Otherwise, you're just a wandering spirit.

The flipside is that you can also make money in this virtual world. Linden Lab has seeded the basic 3D environment, but in effect, Second Life is built and owned entirely by its residents. Once you purchase land, you can sell it at a profit. You can also build and sell all sorts of other goods and services. Linden provides simple 3D tools for creating almost anything.

The design tools are wonderfully simple. You begin with "primitive" geometric shapes, and you're free to color them, change their texture, slap on JPEGs, expand them, attach them together, and more. You can build anything from a moth to a mausoleum. Adding behaviors can take a bit of scripting—Linden offers its own Java-like language—but with a few lines of code, you can instruct objects to move from place to place, play music, respond to commands, and so on. Having trouble learning the ins and outs of these tools? No problem. Tutorials are available from Linden Labs—and from other users.

You keep the stuff you make for yourself or you can sell it. You can open a retail store or start a house-building business, run a casino or become a landscaper. The possibilities are almost endless. With turnover of more than $650,000 a day, it's obvious that numerous individuals and even companies are using Second Life to make money.

Real-World Implications

In December, a Chinese woman named Ailin Graef announced that she had amassed virtual real-estate holdings worth over $1 million. Her 3D avatar, Anshe Chung, made the cover of Business Week.

Meanwhile, big-name corporations are using Second Life's virtual world for marketing purposes. Cisco recently opened up a "virtual headquarters" and shows off real-world products in its virtual amphitheater. Shoemakers such as Adidas and Reebok are selling virtual shoes. And car makers such as Pontiac and Toyota are selling virtual cars. Starwood has even built a virtual version of its new hotel chain.

Then there's the virtual charity work. Organizations such as Save the Children use Second Life to raise real dollars. If you purchase a "virtual yak" at the Save the Children "Yak Shack," you're contributing real money toward real yaks for very real children in Tibet. Laugh if you like. But at the end of the day, those Tibetan children get milk, wool, and much-needed help in plowing fields. That's as real as it gets.

Second Life's 3D graphics are on a par with those of There.com, but when I ran the service on a midrange laptop, it did seem a tad slower than There.com. The system requirements are pretty hefty, and Linden is quite specific about the graphics cards it supports. You may have problem if you're not using a fairly new card from nVidia or ATI. It's also worth noting that, at least for the moment, Second Life will not run on ATI-equipped machines that use Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system. ATI has yet to offer OpenGL drivers for the new OS.

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