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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 6, 2006

Roaming through this virtual world is quite a trip

By Leslie Walker
Washington Post

The Second Life virtual universe has a booming economy. You can buy and sell virtual items there, run a business and accessorize your avatar.

Linden Lab via Washington Post

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I wanted to get up at 5 a.m. Wednesday 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 last week. 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 $30 million in funding, said founder Philip Rosedale.

There are rival virtual worlds out there vying for attention. But 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 free-admission 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 (secondlife.com) is that most everything inside its virtual environs is created, managed and owned by users. Players have property rights for their creations and can sell them to others for "Linden dollars." (Those fake bucks can be swapped for real ones at 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 by nearly 20 percent a month. Their handiwork includes scenery, roads, glittery sex-malls, yachts, clothing boutiques, fanciful magic wands and unicycles.

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, or a pack of Smoker's Delight cigarettes for mere pennies. 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 decided it was time to experience this pointless place first-hand. 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 concoct.

"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.