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Google decides to try a ‘virtual experience’

Times Staff Writer

As if Google Inc. didn’t have a strong enough hold on the planet already, on Tuesday it launched its own world -- a virtual world.

Lively, which Google likes to call a “virtual experience,” allows users to create virtual representations of themselves, then decorate their own virtual rooms, invite friends to that room and do things they’ve always dreamed of, like blowing up oil barrels on a deserted island.

The newest entry to the crowded virtual world space, Google’s Lively is likely to introduce many people to an industry that’s been growing for nearly a decade, analysts said. In the last few years, virtual worlds have become more popular with both computer users and investors: From October 2006 to October 2007 alone, about $1 billion was invested in virtual worlds, according to trade group Virtual Worlds Management.

“With a player like Google jumping into this, you’re going to see a lot more people understand this space and pay attention to it,” said Chris Sherman, the trade group’s executive director.

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This is partly because Lively is easier to use than many popular virtual worlds.

It doesn’t require users to download lots of software, just a plug-in for their Web browser. Members also don’t have to visit a specific website to log in -- they can instead enter their virtual rooms from their own blogs or websites such as Facebook.

Choosing an avatar is simple, as is changing that avatar’s appearance and personal space.

Lively also incorporates other Google services. Users can stream YouTube videos into their virtual living rooms and post their Picasa pictures on their walls.

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They can invite friends to their rooms through instant messenger or e-mail.

“Our intent is to be part of the users’ everyday experience,” said Niniane Wang, an engineering manager at Google.

“We designed it to be easy to use.”

Not everyone is convinced that Google’s virtual experience will be, well, lively. Right now, the hot space in virtual worlds is youth, and Google’s world isn’t designed for kids, said Sibley Verbeck, chief executive of the Electric Sheep Co., which creates virtual world experiences.

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Nor does Lively offer an option for companies to host private meetings inside their own firewall, another popular use of virtual worlds, he said.

Many virtual worlds have been slow to take off with most Web surfers because “users do not generally install new software, including browser plug-ins,” Verbeck said. “I think this solution misses the mark on bringing down technical barriers to the use of virtual worlds on the Web.”

Advertisers are also reluctant to cede the next major platform in advertising revenue to Google, which dominates the Internet advertising space, he said.

But Michael Gartenberg, a research director with Jupiter Research, expects that Lively “is certainly going to give other virtual worlds a run for their money” because it is free. Plus, it’s distributed by an Internet powerhouse.

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Rivals aren’t going to let Google dominate the virtual world without a fight. Linden Lab, the company that runs the popular world Second Life, announced Tuesday that it had figured out how to transport an avatar from one virtual world to another.

“This is a historic day for Second Life, and for virtual worlds in general,” Linden Lab said on its blog.

It probably wasn’t referring to Google’s entry into the virtual worlds scene.

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alana.semuels@latimes.com


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