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Last Updated: Friday, 3 November 2006, 09:19 GMT
The ever-expanding metaverse
Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Screenshot of  Algernon Spackler
Just another day in the office

"Metaverse Evangelist" is not a title you expect to see on a business card, let alone one from an employee of a century-old technology company.

But then Roo Reynolds of IBM is not a normal employee.

Living a double life, one as a twenty-something software engineer and the other as an online four-foot alien, Mr Reynolds flits between dusty wood-panelled meeting rooms and anything-goes virtual worlds like Second Life and Entropia Universe.

His job since March 2006 has been to preach the gospel of the online 3D universe to IBM executives and the company's clients.

"I'm bringing the idea of virtual worlds to IBM," said Mr Reynolds, known as Algernon Spackler in Second Life. "Helping IBM to understand virtual worlds and how we might use them."

3D bubble

Companies like IBM are being forced to sit up and take note of these digital realms, 3D worlds populated by onscreen representations (avatars) of real life people, as they gain more and more popularity.

Second Life, the digital poster child of the virtual universe, has a population of more than 1.1 million and Linden Lab, its creator, says it is growing at about 38% every month

The company forecast that it would add nearly a quarter of a million new members in October alone.

I think it was the right time for Second Life
Jim Purbick
Linden Labs

And Second Life is not alone. Mindark's Entropia Universe, a virtual world based on the untamed virtual planet of Calypso, recently passed the half million milestone for its population.

Many of these new members of the population are young, early-adopters; precisely the kind of people that large companies cherish. In addition Second Life has a 50:50 split of men and women.

As a result companies are falling over themselves to set up a virtual world business, or "v-business". The scrabble is the 3D equivalent of the dot-com boom.

In Second Life, sports manufacturers Adidas and Reebok sell virtual training shoes in the world, Toyota and Nissan sell virtual cars while Starwood Hotels, owner of the Westin and Sheraton chains, test out their new hotels in the world.

Others are also taking note. The BBC has rented an island in the world to stage live music events, while the Reuters' news agency now has a permanent Second Life reporter.

Good timing

Based on the idea of a virtual world called the Metaverse, put forward in Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, Second Life allows people to do what they do in the real world without leaving their chair.

People meet, chat, dance and socialise. You can attend lectures, gamble and inevitably have sex.

Residents can also make and sell goods in exchange for the world's currency, the Linden Dollar, which has an exchange rate with the US dollar.

Screenshot form Entropia Universe
Property in the Entropia Universe can fetch thousands of dollars

Some estimates put the economic value of Second Life in 2005 at $64 million (33 million). Meanwhile Project Entropia saw $1.6 billion pass through the world in the same year, which is set to double in 2006. Some objects, like a virtual space station commanded a price of $100,000.

With figures like those it is easy to see why companies are so keen to get in on the action, but it does not explain why it has become so popular.

"I think it was the right time for Second Life," said Dr Jim Purbick, a senior software engineer, and the only full-time employee of Linden Lab.

Dr Purbick cites the increase in broadband penetration and the ever faster speeds of personal computers as some of the reasons for its explosion.

But it also offers people something else, he added.

"You can meet up with people that you don't normally meet up with.

"You can get involved with events and groups around the world that you are interested in or heard about on the internet"

Virtual discontent

Justin Bovington of Rivers Run Red, an advertising and events company that works in Second Life, agrees.

"I think one of the things is that the collaborative space is so social and creative," he said. "In addition there's no doubt that broadband has been looking for its killer application."

It's not a comparison between doing it in real life and online
Roo Reynolds

Rivers Run Red helped organise the BBC's One Big Weekend event in Second Life, a simultaneous, digital doppelganger of a music festival held in Dundee. He is also working with pop band Duran Duran on their Second Life presence.

But not all of the residents of Second Life are happy about the commercial gloss that is starting to spread throughout the world.

They argue that the appeal of these fantasy realms was that they offer an escape from the uniformity of a globalised society.

Virtual worlds are built by the residents for the residents, they say.

One entry on the Second Life blog reads: "Isn't there someplace that we can be free from crass commercialization?"

Inevitably there is some hype around the virtual world phenomenon with companies wanting to cash in on "the next big thing".

"We saw the same thing with the web," said Mr Reynolds. "Where I think it becomes interesting is where companies engage with it and continue to deliver something interesting, not just a one-off."

Digital future

IBM used to talk about taking bricks and mortar companies and turning them into e-businesses. Mr Reynolds now talks to them about the possibility of becoming v-businesses.

One big weekend screenshot

And the technology giant practices what Roo preaches.

IBM is already hosting meetings in Second Life, although because it does not own the servers that it runs on, attendees cannot discuss sensitive company information, such as patents.

It has also demonstrated a real time "proof-of concept" of the Wimbledon Tennis tournament, where some of the action of centre court was simultaneously replicated using digital animations.

"It's not a comparison between doing it in real life and online," said Mr Reynolds. "But not everyone can afford to go to Wimbledon, but what they might be able to do is share some online experience in a virtual world."

Mr Reynolds, IBM and a whole swathe of companies are convinced by Second Life.

People are already talking about it being the Web 3.0, a 3D collision with the collaborative, social aspects of Web 2.0.

If that vision is embraced in the same way as the web, the metaverse evangelist's work will be done.

"My job will become redundant because everyone will be using it," said Mr Reynolds.

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