When online role-playing games first appeared, they offered people a chance to escape the daily grind and do something different, like slaying an ogre. Then something changed: These fantasy three-dimensional games got real.
Virtual worlds like Second Life and There appeared where residents used 3-D versions of themselves to do, well, pretty much what they'd do in real life, like get ice cream or shop for clothes. Soon real-world retailers, corporate training firms, even banks opened branches in virtual worlds to market real goods and services.
There's just one problem for these virtual wannabes: They can only set up shop one world at a time. Each new virtual space means building a storefront, the equivalent of making a new Web page for every brand of Web browser.
Now, more than 20 major technology firms, including IBM and Microsoft, have agreed to explore ways to connect these worlds. The move could mainstream online 3-D commerce and, more broadly, popularize a new, more visual, way to interact online.
"We have all these different platforms, and if you invest in one you're really pretty much locked in," says Robert Bloomfield, a professor of accounting who researches virtual worlds at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Even without interoperability, some of these worlds are growing fast. Consider Second Life, one of the more popular online worlds. From August 2006 to April 2007, its population mushroomed from under 100,000 to over 6 million. Using an online currency called Linden dollars, which has a real-world exchange rate, Second Lifers can buy online "land" and clothes for their online personalities or avatars. But companies such as American Apparel, Mercedes Benz, Circuit City, and European bank ABN AMRO have set up shop there to sell real-life goods to consumers. On a recent weekday, Second Life's online commerce topped $1.2 million (real US dollars), although slowing growth of users and a glut of virtual real estate has some news organizations suggesting a looming online recession. (Reuters and Wired Magazine operate bureaus in Second Life; CNN opened theirs in November.)
Despite possibly the world's first truly virtual recession, prospects for these online worlds remain bright, experts say. By the end of 2011, 80 percent of Internet users and Fortune 500 companies will have a presence in these 3-D worlds, forecasts Gartner, an information-technology market-research firm in Stamford, Conn.
The reason? The interplay of multiple people online will provide a richer, more satisfying interaction than today's two-dimensional interface, some experts say.
"Can you imagine if every time you went to a website you could see the other ... people's mouses and what they're looking at? ... That's what 3-D gives you," says Edward Castronova, a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University in Bloomington. "It makes surfing communal; it makes it more like a shopping mall for information and less like reading a book."
Some companies say virtual-world technology could enhance telecommuting.
When Linda Ban and her colleagues at IBM began having meetings in 3-D conference rooms, they found that unlike a video or teleconference that ends when the meeting ends, in the virtual worlds participants lingered, just as they would in a real-world meeting room, to discuss ideas or just catch up.
"Qualitatively, not quantitatively, we have identified that issues or challenges that may have taken us weeks and months to address, in some cases we might be down to hours or days" in a virtual environment, says Ms. Ban, client and program strategy executive for IBM's virtual-worlds efforts.
Chris Badger holds most of his meetings in a virtual conference room. In some instances, people may one day prefer these environments to a physical meeting place as the technology improves, says Mr. Badger, vice president of marketing for Forterra Systems Inc., a San Mateo, Calif., company that specializes in building virtual environments,
"We can display these types of data sets in a 3-D environment, where literally, as an avatar, you could walk around the data," he says, "Information will pop out that today, in a 2-D world, you don't see, or you can't see it as effectively."
Although such applications are likely to multiply, many experts are skeptical that virtual worlds will be connected anytime soon.
"All of the virtual worlds that are really successful are not going to substantively get behind this because it's going to require big changes in their practices and big changes in their code base and changes in the way they operate," says Reuben Steiger, cofounder of Millions of Us, a Sausalito, Calif., firm that helps companies market themselves in virtual worlds. He doubts that virtual worlds would expend effort developing technology that would make it easy for users to leave. "It's going to represent a big investment and a big sacrifice for marginal to negative gains," he says.
Ultimately, consumers will dictate any change, says Christian Renaud, chief architect of networked virtual environments at Cisco Systems in San Jose, Calif. "The customers will say, 'Look we've been bearing the costs of maintaining multiple parallel systems that don't talk with one another, and we're not going to take it anymore. If you want us to buy any more of your stuff, you're going to have to figure out a way to interoperate.' "