More Internet users getting a virtual life

More Internet users getting a virtual life

Ellen Lee, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, October 8, 2007

The online universe is brimming with dozens of virtual worlds vying to build sustainable life.

From Gaia, a Japanese anime-inspired site, to vSide, a hip nightclub
scene, they represent the latest way people are interacting through the
Internet. Users create alter-ego avatars to navigate these online
worlds, where they meet and hang out with other people, go shopping,
watch movies, even start a business.

And they’re live: Day and night, they change as people join in.

Though the idea is not new, the technology and the business to
support these virtual worlds are starting to catch up. And now a new
generation, inspired in part by Linden Lab of San Francisco’s Second
Life, is starting to evolve.


"We call it the avatar age," said Reuben Steiger, CEO of Millions of
Us, a Sausalito startup that helps create in-world communities and
promotions for advertisers. "We’re able to connect with each other in
real time and represent ourselves as we want to be seen."

For some, virtual worlds could become a means of social networking,
replacing static pages with live ones as destinations for people to
spend time.

"The first generation of virtual words is a step in the right
direction," said Scott Raney, a partner with Redpoint Ventures and an
investor in Gaia.

Estimates vary on how popular the virtual worlds will become.
Technology research firm Gartner forecast this year that by 2011, 80
percent of active Internet users will have a "second life" in some sort
of virtual world. Another research company, eMarketer, predicted last
month that more than half of U.S. children and teens who use the
Internet – about 20 million people – will visit virtual worlds by 2011.

About 8.2 million young Internet users, or 24 percent, already are
checking out a virtual world once a month, eMarketer estimated.

In the past year, investors have put $1 billion in 35 virtual-world
companies, according to a report advancing the Virtual Worlds
Conference, being held Wednesday and Thursday in San Jose.

Some companies included in the report are more game-oriented than
virtual world-oriented, and therein lies one of the debates for the
nascent industry. Some draw the line between virtual worlds and games
such as World of Warcraft, in which millions of players pillage and
battle each other to advance. Others contend that the massive
multi-player games nevertheless take place in an online world where
participants don’t necessarily have to follow the arc of the story and
can create an avatar just to go inside and meet other people – or orcs.

"It’s definitely a changing landscape," said Chris Sherman,
executive director for Virtual Worlds Management, which conducted the
study.

The virtual worlds are taking all kinds of shapes.

San Jose’s Gaia had 2.5 million users last month, including 100,000
logged in at the same time. It was created by comic book artists, with
two-dimensional avatars that resemble Japanese anime characters.

In vSide, which began about two months ago and has about 200,000
registered users, the online world is more about the music scene, with
nightclubs where groups such as All-American Rejects drop in.

"You have something to come back to every week," said Tim Stevens,
CEO of Doppelganger, the San Francisco company behind vSide. "If you’re
a fan, you want to get the rush you get from going to a concert or a
music festival or finding that new song."

One of the criticisms, however, is that each is its own little
world, disconnected from other virtual worlds. To join another one,
users have to create new avatars and find new friends.

Metaplace is testing a service that would allow people to create
virtual worlds that they can share with friends and publish on their
blogs and social-networking profiles.

"Our goal is to democratize virtual worlds, to put them in the hands of everybody," said Raph Koster, founder of Metaplace.

The reality, though, is that while the virtual world is essentially
limitless, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution still applies. Some
aren’t easy to use, discouraging participants from returning, or they
don’t have enough activities or people in them at one time to make it
fun.

"It’s inevitable there will be too many," said Raney, the partner
with Redpoint Ventures. "We know there’s going to be tremendous
activity in this space. There’s no shortage of places competing for
people’s attention."

And with most virtual worlds still attracting a large population, it isn’t clear how users will react.

"My biggest worry is it’s going to get so fragmented that people are
going to be discouraged," said Michael Wilson, CEO of Makena
Technologies, which runs There.com and also helped MTV build a series
of virtual worlds for its television shows, including "Laguna Beach"
and "The Hills."

Tiffany Stoddard, a 19-year-old psychology and sociology student at Macalester College in Minnesota, uses Zwinky and IMVU.

In Zwinky, part of InterActiveCorp, she and her friends dressed up
as security officers and bugged other players in a virtual shopping
mall. In another instance, she acted as a minister to "marry" her
friends.

"You can’t do all that stuff in real life, so it’s an opportunity to do things you can’t normally do," she said.

Stoddard, who is black, also experimented with race, creating
avatars with different-color skins and testing how others reacted to
her. She found that she received different responses as she looked for
a virtual boyfriend, getting, for instance, responses only from white
men when her avatar was white.

"It’s a break away from reality," she said. "You can dress up your
avatar. It doesn’t have to look like you, and you can interact with
people all over the world instead of interacting with someone right
next to you in the real world."

A galaxy of virtual worlds

Gaia: gaiaonline.com

Habbo: habbo.com

IMVU: imvu.com

Kaneva: kaneva.com

Metaplace: metaplace.com

MTV: vmtv.com

Second Life: secondlife.com

There: there.com

vSide: vside.com

Zwinky: zwinky.com

E-mail Ellen Lee at elee@sfchronicle.com.

http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/10/08/BUM4SKMEK.DTL

This article appeared on page C – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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