The Ever-Expanding Metaverse

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The Ever-Expanding Metaverse

From practically the first moment that there were computers to play with, people who had access to them began playing games. Dungeons and Dragons was an early phenomenon. By the late 1970s, multi-user dungeons began showing up at colleges that had big computers, and people flocked to them for all-night sessions. Then in the 1980s and ‘90s, new graphics and faster connections brought sophisticated games like Habitat and Meridian 59. The first big hit for this type of multi-user community was Ultima Online.

This trend ultimately grew into what’s known as Massively Multi-Player On-Line Role-Playing Games, or MMORPGs for short, which we last examined in the February 2006 issue of Trends. The most well-known of these virtual worlds today is Second Life, with a claimed membership of over 2 million and a growth rate of 38 percent per month, according to a recent BBC report.1 Parent company Linden Labs says it added a quarter of a million new members in October 2006 alone.

As a result, companies are racing to establish a presence, or to set up their own virtual worlds to try to tap into this burgeoning market.

Today’s virtual worlds allow people to do almost anything they can do in real life, with the caveat that it’s all done on the computer. So people meet, chat, socialize, dance, attend lectures, gamble, date, sunbathe, ski, ride motorcycles, and even marry — all by way of the Internet.

To do this, they create an online personality or persona, which is called an avatar. It can be anything from a space alien to a cat to a more attractive version of themselves.

Residents can also make and sell goods, establish businesses, and spend or make real money. In Second Life, for example, the currency is known as the Linden Dollar, and it sells on a real exchange for real U.S. dollars. The estimated value of the Second Life economy was $64 million in 2005.

Another virtual world called Entropia Universe has more than half a million members who spent an alleged $1.6 billion PED (160 million U.S. dollars) in 2005. Estimates say that figure will double for 2006.

In this heady atmosphere, real-world manufacturers are vying for space and visibility. Adidas and Reebok both sell shoes in Second Life. They’re not shoes you can buy in any store. They’re specifically designed for the virtual world and available only on Second Life. Likewise, Toyota and Nissan sell virtual cars, and the Westin and Sheraton chains have hotel space there...

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