SAN FRANCISCO: Moments after being born anew in Second Life, Knut Graff rose into the sky, flew through a mountain and headed over an ocean to explore a virtual world that boasts nearly three million inhabitants.
Minutes later the neophyte crash landed in the sea. Fortunately, animated proxies known as “avatars” can breathe underwater.
Next time, he would use a “transporter” to vanish from one part of the online realm and reappear in another.
Second Life’s population has quadrupled since May last year and continues to boom as businesses follow the masses into an online world complete with homes, colleges, museums, shopping, dance clubs and “avatar sex”.
Avatars can be animals, people, machines or any combination thereof.
The fantasy planet’s host and creator is Linden Labs, a San Francisco company founded by Philip Rosedale in 1999.
“It’s ‘The Matrix´ without the bad guys,” Linden vice president David Fleck told AFP, referring to the popular film series depicting human society as a computer-generated illusion.
“The vision was to make it so people could be who they wanted to be and do what they wanted to do without being judged. You could call it a Utopian society.”
Citizenship is free and the software available at the Second Life website. Linden’s formula for success is to sell “land” and then leave residents free to prosper and frolic.
Simple tools enable residents to use computer code to create anything from movies and clothing to buildings and space crafts.
Residents own whatever they make and are free to sell their creations. They can opt to buy virtual goods with real-word cash.
Second Life currency is the Linden Dollar and “in-world” exchanges convert US dollars to Lindens and vice versa.
Major corporations have set up shop in Second Life. Singer Suzanne Vega performed the first in-world concert there and residents celebrated the end of 2006 with a global snowball fight and online parties.
More than a million dollars were spent in Second Life during the 24 hours before this story was written on Monday, according to Linden.
“Shopping is a very popular activity in second life,” Fleck said. “It’s just like any city in the world.”
Avatars can shop at a virtual American Apparel store and have matching outfits delivered to human alter egos.
Thousands of people supplement or replace incomes with cash earned in Second Life, where a virtual real estate agent recently claimed to have become a millionaire there.
Television news stations have reported from Second Life and British news service Reuters opened a virtual bureau there.
“We really believe in the future of this,” said Austin Morris of US-based QT Labs, which specializes in establishing firms in the virtual world.
“It is the way the Internet is going to be.”
QT Labs boasts in-world representatives from Australia, Argentina, Nova Scotia, Canada and Sweden.
“It’s definitely gaining in popularity and doesn’t show any sign of stopping,” Morris said. “In Second Life, people live their fantasies, for good or for bad.”
Starwood Hotels last year opened an in-world replica of a new Aloft hotel slated to open in the United States in 2008.
“It gave us a chance to build the hotel in the virtual world and get real feedback on colours, furniture, the lobby,” Starwood vice president Brian McGuinness told AFP.
“We think Second Lifers are early adopters; tech-savvy neo-nomads.”
Residents who break the few rules can be exiled permanently but are more likely to be banished temporarily to a virtual corn field where a television shows 1950s US public service announcements nonstop.
Linden revenues come from land sales, property taxes and monthly fees of about 10 dollars for upgraded memberships.
Second Life is accessible from anywhere with broadband connections to handle the huge flow of online data.
“It’s an amazing experience and I’m blown away by the technology,” McGuinness said. “It is nearly as though you are part of a video game. You can lose yourself in believing it is your lifestyle and it is you.”
Second Life has also served as a new landscape on which to deal with old world problems such as litigation and theft.
A suit was filed in a US state court on behalf of a man whose avatar was ousted and his Second Life land confiscated after Linden concluded he got the property via auction shenanigans.
Hackers broke into Second Life computers last year and stole membership data, raising concerns that the avatars could be “outed” and their anonymity violated.
“It is all uncharted territory,” Fleck said. “It is no different than what happened with the Internet in the early 1990s.”