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Real-world companies such as American Apparel, IBM, Starwood Hotels and Toyota are exploring whether 3D virtual communities can be adapted to serve businessand whether they are an effective place to do market research and collaborate on projects, anSecond Life">
They started gathering hours before the Town Hall meeting on Jan. 9 was scheduled to begin, anxious to grab a seat in the virtual auditorium: a lizard man, an armor-plated robot, a floating ball of energy, several dragons, and members of the Alliance armed forces in their best dress uniforms, along with many dozens of curvaceous women and preternaturally buff men. Some paced in front of the stage, while others hovered in mid-air or sat typing text chat at each other on invisible keyboards.
These Town Hall meetings are a tradition in Second Life, the virtual world operated by Linden Lab, a San Francisco startup, where users dress their avatars in clothes (or dragon getups) bought in virtual boutiques, participate in social dramas of their own making, and set up virtual businesses where they buy and sell virtual real estate or hawk virtual clothes, houses, vehicles and furniture.
With more and more avatars filling the same virtual space, the simulation software that tracks the movements and position of individuals and executes animation scripts starts to fall behind. Time seems to slow down, with avatars moving as if through molasses. Some people blink out of existence as the viewer software on their own desktops crashes. Others find themselves in odd predicaments as the laws of physics seemingly break down; while trying to grab a spot in the standing-room area at the back of the auditorium, they find themselves sinking through the floor up to their necks and getting stuck there disembodied heads, unable to see what's happening onstage.
It's not the first time for such problems, but audience members grumble that this time the whole system may crash before the event even gets started. In fact, one of the four simulators that have been clustered together to support a bigger audience does go down, ejecting everyone within it.
These types of problems, however, don't seem to be deterring people and businesses from entering Second Life.
Indeed, real-world companies such as Toyota and American Apparel are exploring whether this 3D world can be adapted to serve real business purposes, similar to the way the Web evolved from a medium for academics and hobbyists to one that supports corporate commerce and marketing. Already, your avatar can test-drive a Toyota Scion or buy clothes in a virtual American Apparel store. So far, however, it's not clear how much these efforts are doing to sell real-world cars, clothes or any other merchandise.
But Chris Holdren, vice president of Web services at Starwood Hotels, who oversaw the construction of a hotel in Second Life a prototype of the new Aloft brand hotels scheduled to appear in the real world in 2008 says Second Life presents enough opportunities that corporate technology leaders should pay attention to it. "I definitely think they should learn about it and understand it," he says. "Whether they invest in it is a more complicated question."
And if this really is the start of something big, those companies that explore the technology now may be in a better position later, much like the first companies to grasp the importance of the Web in the early 1990s back when it was an immature technology trickling out of academia.
Sandy Kearney, director of the virtual worlds program at IBM, says the transition is coming, and "you may not have as much time as you had with the Web" to adjust to its impact. In addition to using it as part of a program for keeping employees connected with each other and with IBM alumni, and as a virtual meeting place to talk with customers, IBM has built a Circuit City and a Sears appliance store in Second Life as demonstration projects (which means IBM didn't charge them for the work).
"Based on the history of the Internet, we think this is a stabilizing period for the 3D Web," Kearney says. A true 3D Web would have to be based on open technologies, with some means of passing between virtual worlds hosted by different organizations. And just as new types of businesses were born on the Web, new businesses will be created around the 3D Web, she says. "But right now it's very early, and the technology is very, very young."
Yet the entry of businesses has created opportunities for experienced residents to set themselves up as consultants who help newcomers create their own Second Life experiences. Alyssa LaRoche entered Second Life as Aimee Weber while she was laid up with a torn knee ligament and couldn't do much other socializing. She became a regular at Second Life nightclubs, decked out in clubwear of her own design and a pair of butterfly wings.
A former computer consultant to financial services companies who was then working as a Web programmer, LaRoche became proficient at designing items for sale to other avatars and soon established a clothing store called Preen. Other users bought her clothes with Linden dollars, or Lindens, the "in-world" currency, which trade on exchanges operated by Linden Lab and others at a rate of about 250 to 300 Lindens to $1US.
When American Apparel, a real-world clothing store, decided to create a parallel boutique in Second Life, Aimee was hired to design it. Her company, Aimee Weber Studios, a Second Life development company, now employs 11 full-time employees and another 10 part-timers. But she also continues to operate in-world businesses such as her clothing stores, and to develop her own real estate in areas such as Midnight City, where she rents out storefront locations and lofts.
The Second Life system runs on 1,800 Debian Linux servers dedicated to simulating activities in the virtual world, with multiple copies of the simulation software on each server. As of mid-February, there were 6,400 simulators software devices that track activity in production, with each of them representing 16 acres of land. Linden has another 200 servers for supporting systems, including MySQL databases, Web servers and test simulators. These numbers come from vice president of technology Joe Miller, who notes that Linden is currently adding three racks of servers per week, with 41 servers per rack, in an effort to get ahead of a backlog in orders for new land.
Meanwhile, Linden's viewer software effectively, the equivalent of a browser for this version of the 3D Web must download all the object geometries and the images used to provide them with "texture," and display them and their movements on screen.
But there are limits to how much the simulators can simulate and the viewers can display. As the January Town Hall meeting demonstrated, Second Life events often turn into inadvertent stress tests.
Ultimately, whether Linden Lab can turn Second Life into a successful economic platform for itself and its customers also hinges on whether the virtual world can survive its current growing pains. "Scalability? Absolutely, that's the question," says Aimee Weber Studios' LaRoche.