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Roaming Virtual World Is a Real Trip

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, March 30, 2006

I wanted to get up at 5 a.m. yesterday and watch the solar eclipse with my new friend Tony, but I was too tired from a night of robotic line dancing in my high-heeled sandals and low-rider jeans.

It was weird watching the sun go down in a virtual world. I got so fixated on my long mop of brown hair and curvy cartoon body that I barely noticed the light fading in Second Life, the trendy online universe I visited for the first time Tuesday. Besides, I felt higher than Mount Everest after fulfilling my lifetime dream of flying. What a rush!

Second Life didn't feel as crowded as it might have, given all the hubbub over this fast-growing, three-dimensional place where people are not only hanging out but buying land, building virtual casinos and opening other businesses that earn real dollars selling virtual stuff. I flew around outside the pseudo-cities and saw plenty of cheap empty space where you could still buy a tract, throw up your dream palace, and settle in before the mobs arrive and push prices to the stars.

And it looks like the mobs are en route.

Second Life's creator, a company called Linden Lab, landed an additional $11 million in financing this week from a group of high-profile investors, including Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Linden Lab employs about 80 people and isn't profitable yet, but is "very close" and has drawn a total of $30 million in funding, said founder Philip Rosedale.

That's a lot of dough for a company chasing an ambitious dream that has eluded entrepreneurs for years -- basically, creating a 3-D version of the Web. Not only does Second Life have quite a few failed predecessors, it has other rival virtual worlds vying for attention today.

Yet Second Life was the one that had tongues flapping at two recent high-tech gatherings. And not just because 168,000 people have signed up to participate in its admission-free universe -- that's far fewer than the millions paying monthly fees to play heavily scripted online games such as World of Warcraft. No, it was the volume of economic activity and original software development taking place in Second Life that caught people by surprise.

What's different about Second Life is that most everything inside its virtual environs is created, managed and owned by users. Players retain property rights for their creations and can sell them to others for "Linden dollars," a virtual currency. Those fake bucks can be swapped for real ones at exchanges rates of about $1 to 250 Linden dollars. Second Life makes money by selling "land" and charging virtual rent ranging from $5 to $195 per month.

Lots of participants are creating goods inside this world, which already occupies virtual acreage equivalent to the size of Boston and is growing nearly 20 percent a month. Their handiwork includes scenery, roads, glittery sex-malls, yachts, clothing boutiques, fanciful magic wands and unicycles. Users are busy creating the equivalent of what it would take a team of 3,000 software developers to build in the traditional game-world model, Rosedale said.

For those who lack time to create adornments for the cartoonish bodies called "avatars," the SLboutique.com Web store and other virtual-tool makers offer all kinds of clothes and extras, including 202 styles of virtual wings for about 40 cents, big ponytails for 60 cents or a pack of "Smoker's Delight" cigarettes for mere pennies. Like other virtual objects, the cigs are scripted to act like their real-world counterparts, animated so they light up, emit smoke and stop doing anything after seven minutes.

I finally decided it was time to experience this pointless place first hand. What I never understood about Second Life, even back when Rosedale showed an early version at an event in 2002, was what purpose it served. As creative and colorful as his fantasy world was, Rosedale always insisted it was not a game. So why would people go there?

Foolish me. All you have to do is take one fly-through and see Ferraris whizzing by below, vintage aircraft gliding through clouds above, bling-bling hanging from shapely women in skimpy clothes who hop, skip and fly everywhere, and you get the picture. It's about the same things as the real world -- identity, status, seeing and being seen.

Which kind of surprised Rosedale, who imagined the fantasy world people would create in Second Life would be a bit more unconventional, like the strange visions science fiction writers have been concocting for years.

"Instead it looks like Malibu," he said, chuckling. "It turns out everyone wants a Frank Lloyd Wright-style, cantilevered, modernistic house hanging off a cliff somewhere."

It takes a fairly high-end video graphics card and a powerful computer to move around smoothly in Second Life, which may keep away the mass audience for another year or two. But the company says its virtual economy is starting to hum: During a recent 30-day period, residents bought or sold a quarter-million virtual items, swapped 75 million instant messages and exchanged goods valued at $800,000 real dollars.

One real-world business catering to Second Life and similar virtual communities is District-based Electric Sheep Co., a year-old start-up employing 12 people. In addition to owning SLBoutique.com, Electric Sheep sells services to other companies, including big brands exploring ways to interact with customers inside virtual worlds.

"We are looking at some medical applications, too," said chief executive T. Sibley Verbeck. "You could imagine developing something that would help people get over phobias by immersing them in something like what they're concerned about."

I don't know if the imagery is all that real yet, but I can say that the open-ended nature of Second Life felt new and interesting, a lot like taking an early tour of the World Wide Web back in 1995 and straining to imagine where it all would lead.

Leslie Walker welcomes e-mail atwalkerl@washpost.com.

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