Population boom in a digital world

Population boom in a digital world

By Toby Sterling, Associated Press
Posted on Mon, Oct. 09, 2006

In the beginning, Philip Rosedale created a virtual heaven and a digital earth, and then he said “let there be `Second Life.’ ”

Whether or not it’s good, the 38-year-old entrepreneur’s 3-D world is certainly fruitful and multiplying.

“Second Life” now has more than 800,000 denizens, of whom more than a hundred are earning a real-world, full-time living there, selling things like virtual land, clothes, jewelry, weaponry and pets, or by offering virtual services, notably sex.

Yes, people pay real money for things they can use only in Rosedale’s Web world. Hundreds of thousands of real dollars change hands in “Second Life” daily, and it would have an annual gross domestic product of around $150 million if it were to stop growing today.

But Rosedale forecasts it will pass a million users this year. A rush to be part of the “new new thing” is on, and organizations like Major League Baseball, Harvard University, American Apparel, and CNet.com are among the many opening operations in “Second Life,” while musicians like Duran Duran and Suzanne Vega have broadcast virtual concerts there using the world’s lifelike animated characters.

As chief executive of Linden Research, which owns “Second Life,” Rosedale is akin to the world’s god, with the software code he approves determining its fundamental laws. But when he enters “Second Life” as his self-created avatar, or character, he claims no special power other than celebrity above the thousands of other intelligent designers who populate its realms.

“I have to admit that I’m vain, like all of us. Nowadays to be Philip Linden (his online alter ego) is to be a rock star,” he said in an interview at a recent conference.

But “if I were the king, then this couldn’t be what it is,” he says.

Whatever “Second Life” is, it’s clear that it belongs in a different class than the virtual realities of film and fiction that have gone before it.

The closest comparison would be to online video games like “World of Warcraft,” or “The Sims Online.” The difference is, Rosedale’s creation “is not a game,” he said. It doesn’t have a goal, and most resources aren’t restricted. Characters can fly or breathe water, and they never age or die.

Land is the one resource that is limited, and the main source of revenue for Linden. Users who want a permanent place in the world to build their virtual homes or set up businesses pay $10 a month to own 500 virtual square meters, or an eighth of an acre, in addition to the one-time cost of purchasing developed real estate from speculators or virgin land from Linden.

Linden also takes in commissions from operating the “Second Life” currency exchange. “Linden dollars” trade at a fluctuating rate against the U.S dollar — right now it’s about $1 to 280 Linden dollars.

Another big draw for “Second Life” is the prospect of witnessing or engaging in virtual sex. Players can alter their characters’ appearance to be as beautiful or sexy as their imaginations — and computer graphics — allow them to be.

Users own the intellectual property rights to the things they design there. That has attracted tech-savvy designers who craft landscapes of stunning beauty and build objects of infinite cunning.

Rosedale describes a recent invention that caught his eye: virtual glasses that, when worn, allow players who don’t speak the same language to communicate.

“It’s magical,” he says, “to have someone type Japanese (characters) to you and then, blip, words” appear on your screen.

Rosedale says scholars and companies are using “Second Life” to model real-world problems, like the logistics of distributing aid after a disaster.

“Second Life” was launched in 2003. It’s grown to the size of a virtual San Francisco, where Linden is based.

Rosedale says Linden is “almost” turning a profit. He owns a significant stake in the company, but doesn’t control it. It’s backed by well-known Silicon Valley venture capital firms.

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