For an exclusive photo tour of Second Life, click here.
I'm standing in an airy train station surrounded by rolling, wooded hills. Distant sounds of birds and trickling water reach my ears over a low buzz of chitchat from the people around me. They have come from all over North America to meet here, and now they're lounging on couches and standing in sociable little clots. Ballerinas are talking to men in body armor, while guys in suits show off their dance moves to aliens and ladies with wings. I try not to stare.
Or rather, a digital version of me called an avatar tries not to stare. I'm sitting at my computer, and my point of view hovers about three feet behind as I use the arrow buttons on my keyboard to amble toward the street outside. Next to me, a blue elf and a towering woman in a black cape tap on invisible keyboards that hover in the air. I can hear the click of the keys, and cartoon speech bubbles near their heads reveal that they're discussing computer programming.
"Hi, I'm new here," I type into a box at the bottom of my screen marked "chat." When I "talk," my avatar does the same keyboard-and-bubble routine. "I can tell," says the woman in the cape. I'm wearing the generic outfit-jeans and a T-shirt-given to every new arrival here in Second Life, one of the biggest public virtual-reality spaces ever built online. Like the computer game The Sims, Second Life is software that enables you to guide your avatar through a 3-D landscape, chat with other avatars, and build objects with tools. But SL, as it's known to its 300,000 members, or "residents," isn't a game. It's more like an animated version of real life. There's no way to win and no specific objective.
Launched in 2000, SL counts among its largest backers Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Today a session in SL usually means play: meeting new people (everyone who's logged in is somewhere in the SL landscape), building a rocket, even having sexual liaisons in specially marked adult areas. But increasingly, people are logging on to work, shop, or go to class. Of course, the same thing could have been said about the Web 10 years ago. Like the Web, all but the basic infrastructure in SL is built by the people who populate it. Want a conference room where you can swap blueprints with a team around the world? Create one, and other avatars can come inside. Want to sell your band's music? Build a jukebox, fill it with MP3s, and charge SL residents in Linden dollars (SL's currency) to download them.
Mitchell Kapor, the founder of software pioneer Lotus, was the first outside investor in Linden Labs, the company behind SL. "Second Life is what MySpace wants to be," he says. "People are inventing new uses for it all the time. And the e-commerce aspect of it is going to be huge."
Although no major brick-and-mortars are doing business from within SL yet, they are taking note. The banking giant Wells Fargo built its own branded island inside SL, designed to train young people to be financially responsible. Wal-Mart, American Express and Intel are looking at using SL for their corporate training. And why not? With its natural interactivity and open platform for creation, Second Life, or something like it, may very well be the next generation of the Web. For example, if I was online banking in SL, I wouldn't have to browse through several static screens of text. I could just walk into a virtual bank, stroll up to a teller, and deposit real-life money the newfangled, old-fashioned way: by talking to a person.
But before I do that, I need to learn how to dress myself and get around.
"Have some clothes," the caped woman says, handing me a box. I click on a pair of red pants inside, but something goes wrong and I wind up crashing my new outfit. Just as I'm at my most confused, a guy with a skull for a face walks up and points his finger at me. Lights jump between my body and his hand. "I'm stealing your soul," he explains.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.