‘Second Life’ 3-D Digital World Grows

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AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS
— 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 only use in Rosedale’s world, which is created on
powerful servers and accessed through the Internet. 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 Inc., 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 Inc., 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
told The Associated Press 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.” Users download free software that
opens a portal to “Second Life,” and Linden’s servers draft models of
the ever-changing world and send it back to them as a real-time video.

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.

Like in real life,
it’s up to you what you do in “Second Life,” and many are flocking to
it with dreams of getting rich quick. Anshe Chung, the character
created by Chinese-German businesswoman Ailin Graef, reportedly netted
more than $100,000 last year trading and leasing land in desirable
“Second Life” locations.

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 like Graef or virgin land from
Linden.

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

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.

Rosedale says he did intend “Second Life” to be a
kind of marketplace, but not necessarily a brothel. “The generative
idea was that it was a place where you could create things,” he says.

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, or
studying how efficient the layout of a proposed office building will be.

Of
course, “Second Life” is hardly a Garden of Eden. One of its servers
was hacked last month, potentially exposing users’ personal data, and
in-game harassment is a common problem. On “Second Life’s” Web site
there’s a “police blotter” of disciplinary action taken against users
for various violations of the world’s commonsense code of conduct.

Rosedale
says there are no court cases that he’s aware of yet but he concedes a
lawsuit over in-game copyright infringement can’t be far off.

Rosedale
describes himself as a bookish San Diego kid who liked electronics and
power tools from an early age — he even modified his bedroom door to
open upward with a garage opener.

He became interested in
computer programming and founded his first company while still in high
school. It was bought by RealNetworks Inc. in 1996 and Rosedale served
as the company’s chief technical officer. He left in 1999, when he
realized high-speed Internet connections would soon make it possible to
create the virtual world he had dreamed about for a decade.

“Second
Life” was launched in 2003. It’s grown to the size of a virtual San
Francisco, where Linden is based, but its geography and cultural life
are so rich and varied that the October issue of Wired Magazine
contains a “Let’s Go”-style sightseeing guide.

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.

Rosedale says he wouldn’t have predicted many things about the direction users have taken the world.

“I
thought that when you came into ‘Second Life,’ you’d see, like, ‘space
port Alpha’ … a wild mishmash of future visions,” he says.

In
fact, there are many futuristic landscapes and cyber-punk characters.
But advertisements are everywhere, and much of the world’s residential
property looks like Malibu — a reflection of people’s earthly desires.

“They
want oceanfront property … and they want palm trees, and they want a
cantilevered Frank Lloyd Wright house, up a little bit from a beach at
a pier with a little power boat … And then they watch the sun set on
the deck,” he say

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