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It's life but not as we know it, as web's future takes shape
Welcome to cyberspace, where our correspondent, complete with a 'nightclub guy' body, learns to fly and submits to the addictive internet revolution
Times Online
Giles Whittell
July 29, 2006

At the Hot Licks Dance Club it helps to be able to dance. If you don't have the moves, people tend to ignore you; but if you do — and especially if you've made an effort with your outfit — it can be very friendly indeed.

Or so it claims. The Times, however, cannot confirm this. Visiting the club in tight, blue leggings and a white T-shirt stretched over rippling muscles, your correspondent paused at the edge of the dancefloor, soaking up the Blade Runner ambience and hoping to be noticed.

At least 20 couples were grinding away to the Commitments' thumping rendition of Mustang Sally. "I" was alone, but so was a slender young woman dancing provocatively in a dark cloak near the stage. I strolled over and was about to say hello when she cut me off.

"Sorry, gotta go," she said. And then she turned away and took off, literally, like Superwoman.

It was an apt introduction to the take-no-prisoners nightclub scene in Second Life, of which Hot Licks is a tiny part. This is a place where novices can feel as gauche as pimply adolescents — but everyone can "fly" and regular visitors believe they are pioneering the biggest technological innovation since the world wide web.

Second Life is not a real place. It is entirely digital, and so is everyone there. Known as avatars, they talk in speech bubbles and walk like Buzz Lightyear. They are virtual representatives of real people who choose their online gender, name and basic appearance when registering on Second Life's internet home page. I called mine Bill.

The whole of Second Life exists online: gigabyte after gigabyte of software script, most of it written by residents, all of it loaded on to 3,000 internet servers humming quietly in warehouses a few miles south of San Francisco. Each server is a stackable box of silicon brainpower, and between 150 and 200 new ones are added every month as Second Life's population climbs towards 400,000.

It is here that the next online revolution may have begun. Second Life, and other virtual worlds like it, are growing as fast as the internet itself was 13 years ago. So far their users are mainly young and computer-savvy, happy to write their own software or buy it from other users to enhance their virtual lives.

But if virtual world operators succeed in wooing the masses as the worldwide web has, our experience of cyberspace will be transformed.

In Second Life last night, among waterfalls and lights on an idyllic island off the coast of nowhere in particular, American Apparel, a Los Angeles-based clothing brand, staged the grand opening of its first virtual mega-store. There was real music, courtesy of the brand's own radio station, but there were also virtual tacos, virtual goody bags and virtual beer. Free virtual T-shirts were handed out to virtual guests and there were even discount coupons for real people determined to buy real T-shirts for themselves.

"We've been talking about virtual reality for years," said Raz Schionning, the man behind the megastore. "Finally we've reached the point where anyone with a decent computer and enough (internet) bandwidth can see what that reality might look like."

Virtual worlds have existed since the mid-1990s, and at least ten million people pay monthly fees to play multiplayer online games in them; but such games offer little in the way of socialising that cannot be done faster and cheaper in internet chatrooms.

Second Life, as new users quickly learn, is not a game at all. Its founder, Philip Rosedale, is an avowed Utopian with a physics degree from the University of California and surfer-dude looks. He has said he is "building a new country", and there is something to the boast.

Its avatars can buy "land", build and do whatever they like on it, and set up businesses that make real money. They can also get dressed, get married, get divorced and get lucky.

As in the real world, there is a lot of sex in Second Life, and most of it goes on behind closed "doors". It requires consent, but also special software to endow your alter ego with the desired genitalia and make him or her move realistically. This software has to be specially written or bought for "in-world" currency (typically less than £1's worth), then wrapped in a clickable "sex ball" which appears onscreen as an icon.

Children are not supposed to be involved. They have their own Teen Second Life, screened for "mature" content, although in practical terms there is little to stop them teleporting themselves to where they shouldn't be. As for grown-ups, some sign up for mere carnality and some purely for business, but most seem to harbour more complex wish-fulfilment fantasies. In Second Life, after all, the fat can be thin, the shy can be brash, the gay can play straight and everyone can pretend to be Rockefeller.

"I'm constantly inspired by what people are building there," said Jon Kossman, a British Second Lifer and professional podcaster who spends $125 (£67) a month renting 30,000 virtual square metres of land, some of which he hopes to sublet to capitalise on a virtual property boom among his fellow podcasters.

"Building", in any virtual world, means creating your own software tools, which can show up on screen as anything from a sex ball to a skyscraper. If this is geeky, all the world's geeks are gravitating to Second Life. Launched three years ago with 1,000 residents, almost all from the US, it now has 370,000 and is adding up to 8,000 more a day, a tenth of them from Britain. If this were real, it would be one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

New arrivals register their real names and birthdays on the website and choose names, genders and generic "looks" for their avatars. They then congregate on a sandy promontory with the sound of a soft sea breeze wafting out of their computers.

I chose Bill, then Towradgi (from a list of uniformly peculiar surnames) and a brown-skinned "nightclub guy" body in preference to "boy next door" and "cybergoth". Bill was presented to the virtual world with a defiantly female torso, so I selected "edit appearance" from a drop-down menu and replaced my breasts with muscles.

Soon afterwards, I learnt to "fly" and was instantly in danger of becoming addicted. Soaring over an island-scape reminiscent of the artificial archipelagos being built off the coast of Dubai, I scribbled: "You could waste a lot of time on this."

Yet waste is not always the right word. Last weekend the American Cancer Society held its second annual online "Relay For Life" in Second Life and raised $40,000 in real money in two days, $800 coming from the sale of a single virtual car called the Dominus Shadow.

MTV has hosted fashion shows in Second Life. Major League Baseball built an entire stadium there in which to broadcast this season's Home Run Derby on miniature "big" screens. McDonald's has opened burger restaurants in other virtual worlds. Newsweek has broadcast from a virtual studio, and Nike sells virtual sneakers that make avatars run faster.

Recalling this, I saw a way to break the ice with an attractive female avatar in a grey dress in one of Second Life's myriad shopping malls.

Bill: "Hi."

Her: "Hello."

Bill: "Do you know if they sell Nikes here?"

Her: "This is my first visit. I'm looking for a handbag."

Lacking even the software for a handshake, we ended it there; but some expert users are thriving so conspicuously in Second Life that real life hardly compares. Nathan Keir, an Australian programmer, created a bingo-like game called Tringo, that has since been licensed to Nintendo for sale in the real world. Chris Mead, from Norwich, makes £1,000 a week from "in-world" sales of software that lets avatars cuddle. Jon Kossman hopes to build a virtual monorail through his podcasters' district and then charge passengers for tickets; and Anshe Chung (who releases only her avatar's name) employs 17 real people to manage a virtual property empire worth $250,000. In all, virtual currency worth nearly $6 million changed hands in Second Life last month.

None of those involved needed permission from Rosedale or his company, Linden Lab. They just bought land at $1,250 per 16-acre island and went to work; but all of them are of consuming interest to business and marketing gurus, who see in virtual worlds a vision of the future in which work is disguised as play.

"These online environments are structured such that they reward and seduce you to perform complex, tedious tasks," writes Nick Yee, of Stanford University. "How difficult would it be for developers to embed real work into these environments?"

Not as difficult, one suspects, as it will be to control rogue avatars bent on spoiling other people's fun (or work) as virtual worlds expand. For now, though, Second Life has the security question covered. Paid "liaisons" enforce strict rules against intolerance, harassment, assault, disclosure of real-world information about avatars without their consent and "disturbing the peace". Orwell had nothing on this. But then, as Orwell knew, Utopia is not the same as anarchy.
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