Last Updated: Friday, 22 February 2008, 18:10 GMT
Searching for a new virtual life
By Katie Ledger
Click Reporter

Screenshot of World of WarCraft, Blizzard
World of WarCraft was launched in the US in 2004

Creating an avatar, an online representation of you, and living in a virtual world has been a possibility for years now.

Users already populate one world or another in the hope of living their dream life, at least virtually.

With massively multiplayer online games (MMOG) like World of WarCraft it was relatively easy to build a user base, after all, those virtual worlds were built on an already successful genre - video games - where the goal might be to carry out a task or slay a giant monster.

But in non-game virtual worlds the purpose is somewhat vague. The user can invest huge amounts of time, and sometimes money, fully exploring these worlds and not really achieving much.

Marketing tools

Many companies, including traditional media, are jumping on the bandwagon early so they will not be left behind in the three-dimensional revolution.

Screenshot CBS's CSI in Second Life
Virtual worlds like CSI: New York can be used to reach new audiences
Some are banking on the power of the current virtual worlds, others are designing their own to suit their clientele.

The American TV network CBS recently took their smash hit CSI: New York and extended it into Second Life.

At home you can become a crime scene investigator and solve crimes in virtual New York. Game play is far from perfect and, to be honest, it gets a little tedious after a while.

But from the outset it achieves its goal - namely to create another space for grabbing more advertising revenue away from the traditional TV screen and reach a new generation of audiences who consume more content on the web.

Valerie Williamson, vice-president of marketing and business development at The Electric Sheep Company says: "Before virtual worlds on the web, all they had were 30 second television spots.

"Now with virtual worlds you can integrate the product into the experience so the user wants to voluntarily interact with a sponsor's product," she adds.

Realistic environments

There are plenty of other imaginative approaches to extending brand recognition.

Screenshot of Multiverse
Multiverse will offer video streaming from sites such as YouTube
For example, Vodafone's Inside Out, where phone calls and SMS messages to the real world and back are now possible.

Second Life may be the most high profile virtual world, but there is plenty of competition hoping to give it a run for its money. is a virtual world which is trying to appeal to a younger audience. "There" is rated PG 13, meaning there is no adult content on the site.

Activities include beach parties, driving races, and, should it take your fancy, being seduced by 50ft (15m) high virtual billboards of Paris Hilton, who has sniffed an opportunity to use virtual commerce to promote her new perfume.

I saw a demo from a soon-to-be-released version of the virtual world Multiverse, showing a glimpse of a likely future for the platform.

The new version offers more realistic environments, streaming from video sharing sites like YouTube, and the ability to populate its spaces with up to 1,500 avatars in one space which is way more than the competition.

Virtual taxes

Governments are also gearing up to a future in virtual worlds.

Screenshot of an avatar looking at shoes
Could tax mean that virtual goods cost as much as ones in real life?
There is a diplomacy island in Second Life where you can find the virtual embassies of the Philippines, Malta and the Maldives.

But the government interest in virtual worlds might go beyond just participating.

Following the lead of South Korea, where virtual worlds are most popular, the UK and Australia are already formulating plans to impose taxes on virtual profits.

Meeting spaces

And like the web, virtual worlds are set to impact enormously on the workplace.

Justin Bovington, head of virtual worlds design company Rivers Run Red says: "People are actually using [virtual spaces] for having meetings.

"We have recently had conferences of over 160 people coming together to discuss specific ideas.

"They are using the same business tools that we would use in the real world, things like PowerPoint and Word documents," he adds.

If your connection or your computer is not up to the job you can find yourself wandering around aimlessly in a monochrome universe
IBM employee Holly Stewarts says: "I think the main thing is that it is much richer experience, a much more immersive experience."

"If you imagine being on a traditional old-fashioned conference call, everyone picks up the phone dials in, writing e-mail at the same time. It is quite hard to know whose turn it is to talk.

"When you have a real life meeting, people will gather around the water coolers or the coffee machine, before the meeting after the meeting. People will form small groups just chat and network, it is much more like we do as human beings in real life, " she adds.

Tipping point

But like the web, the success of virtual worlds will depend on ease of use and access.

All these worlds are processor-heavy to run and need a lot bandwidth to function properly. And if your connection or your computer is not up to the job you can find yourself wandering around aimlessly in a monochrome universe.

And let us be honest, a mouse and a keyboard is not exactly the most intuitive way of navigating your way around.

Paul Ledak, vice president for IBM Digital Convergence says: "Virtual worlds are still in a very early adopter stage of technology, but it is something that we expect is going to get much more popular."

We will hit a tipping point, he said, but there has to be a reason for people to want to be in the virtual worlds.

Business and entertainment have to be able to connect into virtual worlds and you have to have interoperability, he adds.

High expectations

So what does interoperability mean? The idea is to create one avatar to roam in different virtual worlds.

Currently those who want to log-on to virtual worlds have to plump for a particular platform in which to live their alternate lives
For example, I might not be able to take my wardrobe with me, but I should be able to take is my personal preferences, like my blonde hair, green eyes and most importantly my online reputation.

But for now interoperability is a watchword that the industry is talking about - and as is so often the case in the tech world, never comes to fruition.

Currently those who want to log-on to virtual worlds have to plump for a particular platform in which to live their alternate lives.

Virtual worlds will not become truly mainstream for some time. Their progress will be driven, unsurprisingly, by the younger generation.

They will be expecting a lot from them too - not just places to take social networking to the next level, but environments which are genuine useful - and which, crucially, can provide a real alternative to the 2D virtual world they are already inhabiting.

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