Real Business and Law in Virtual Worlds: What’s a Virtual World?

Biz Schmooz

Part 1 in a series of 3.
Virtual worlds are online environments where people interact with others using graphical representations of themselves called avatars. These avatars can be just about anything, and you can be male or female, tall or short, green or blue. You design what you want, and can change it whenever the mood hits you. Saves a lot of time at the gym.

Interaction in these virtual worlds is often through the use of chat – typing out messages that are ‘heard’ by other avatars nearby. You can also designate one-on-one communication in much the same way as you would using IMs (Instant Messaging) for private communication. 

Shopping in second lifeIn addition to interacting with others, you can build things such as houses, furniture, jewelry and clothes – just about anything you can imagine. Furthermore, in some cases, you can program those objects with behaviors such as movement or color changes. Because the tools provided to build things are not the easiest things to use, and because not everybody wants to program, most people are actually content with using what others have built. Ka-ching! You guessed it – people sell these things. So there’s commerce and contracts, and intellectual property rights.

At this point, virtual worlds are basically social networking applications with a very rich graphical user interface. However, they are quickly on the way to being much more. This series of articles will describe different virtual worlds, and the business and legal issues being explored in them.

Your World. Your Imagination.
secundo.gifOne such virtual world is called Second Life   by Linden Lab. I have been a member of Second Life for about a year, and have found it to be an amazing space with all sorts of promise, from eCommerce to eLearning.

Last fall, I attended a SD Forum presentation in the San Francisco Bay Area hosted by IBM that discussed the potential of such online places, with a particular eye towards eCommerce. That presentation was also being simultaneously broadcast in Second Life.

Specifically, the audio was being broadcast to those avatars who had gathered at the IBM pavilion for the presentation. It was a trippy concept – overlapping realities in the same space-time event. Had I been watching it on my laptop at the same time, I would have had flashbacks of Tron. Hello, program!

IBM  is keen on both the eCommerce angle of providing companies venues for sales, and also in the very idea of developing the underlying technology for the world themselves. IBM has been working with companies like Circuit City to explore ways to represent real products and sell online in virtual stores. The next frontier of online sales may be entirely virtual.

Over the next few weeks, we will examine the state of business on virtual worlds; from what’s for sale and how it’s sold, to what legal issues involving dispute resolution and intellectual property protection.

So sit back, pour yourself a virtual triple Americano, and let’s explore worlds that are only built with electrons, photons and imagination.

Part 2 | Part 3

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