More Marketers Taking a First Look at Second Life

By Feb 16, 2007

(Direct) To its 2.7 million registered users around the world, the virtual reality universe Second Life (SL) is a nice place to visit, play, and shop for completely digital goods. But a growing number of real-life retailers are deciding that they want to live there.

Last month Sears announced that it’s building a virtual home in the Second Life world to promote some of its design solutions. Visitors will be able to enter, explore, and custom redesign kitchens in the Sears cyber-showhouse, experimenting with cabinet styles and facings, changing the color of countertops, and adding appliances from a Sears showroom.

Sears is setting up its home on an “island” owned and operated by IBM. It’s the second retail resident of that island; electronics superstore Circuit City opened a Second Life store there last December. Users can walk through a 3-D store environment and see dimensional images of a selection from Circuit City’s inventory, including TVs, computers, cameras, media players, DVDs, and video games. Clicking on an item takes the user to a product detail page outside Second Life on Circuit City’s Website, where users can make purchases and arrange home delivery.

But Doug Meacham, Circuit City’s manager of infrastructure services, says the company didn’t construct its virtual store with an eye to driving herds of Second Lifers to buy or even browse. For one thing, the store’s location on IBM’s island is far from the foot traffic of SL’s most visited areas. (This matters, even though you can get around in SL by flying.) For another, Second Life merchants aren’t yet able to conduct transactions for anything more real than digital entertainment, such as movies or video downloads.

“We’re there for a learning experience,” says Meacham. “In the near future, this is going to be a fairly seamless extension of the Web that you deal with today. Today you do e-commerce by looking at a flat screen. But soon that could include moving into a virtual store and actually picking up a 3-D item and putting it into a cart. We want to learn how to use this 3-D virtual environment as a way to extend capabilities that improve the customer’s experience.”

Circuit City is also interested in developing the Second Life outlet as a customer service center, an online place where buyers can go to learn more about using their new equipment or to troubleshoot purchased items. Right now, users can go to the home-theater department and move a couch around to determine the size of flat-panel TV they’ll need in their homes. Future developments might include uploading all the furniture from their room to decide the best placement of a Surround Sound system.

Sears too expects that future innovations will enable greater customization in its Virtual Home. For example, visitors will be able to use simple software to model their real-world kitchen, import it into the Sears store and use the refinishing tools for a more accurate picture of what they can get from a remodeling job. They may also have the opportunity to invite other Second Life members — a spouse or friend — to the Virtual Home to view or critique the finished job.

Other commercial operations have set up shop in Second Life, although many of these efforts are aimed at fostering brand awareness among young adults and the technorati. W Hotels has built a prototype of its new Aloft hotel brand there to get design feedback from members. And companies such as Nike, Sony, and American Apparel have opened their digital doors to let customers “try on” new footwear, buy new clothes for their avatars, or listen to music. Toyota, Nissan, and GM have opened SL dealerships, selling pixelated Pontiacs and cyber Scions to residents. IP voice carrier Vonage has scattered phone booths all over Second Life to let members make IP phone calls out into the real world.

And Amazon.com is known to have developers working on ways to bridge into Second Life — not surprising, since CEO Jeff Bezos is a big investor in Second Life creator Linden Lab.

IBM, which is working with both Sears and Circuit City on their virtual store construction projects, is so confident of Second Life’s future significance that it has established a division to explore the possibilities. “We think there can be some really cool opportunities here,” says IBM director of communications Matt McMahon. “In commerce, we’re interested in how you extend the current e-commerce experience to new areas, using the 3-D environment to change how you interact with customers.” Other areas of interest include virtual collaboration, in-world business conferences, and Second Life distance-learning classrooms.

There undoubtedly are technical and business-model problems to overcome before Second Life can turn into a convenient, welcoming rich-media shopping center. For one thing, participation requires a software download, and the system demands are so extreme that all but the most up-to-date computers will have trouble.

And like most other popular techno-trends, Second Life suffers from its share of hackers, here known as “griefers.” One griefing attack dropped a piñata and a case of beer inside the American Apparel store. More aggressive “griefspawn” assaults have been known to disrupt private conferences and shower whole neighborhoods with endlessly replicated objects such as dancing phalluses. Apart from any bad publicity, the attacks can slow performance and even crash networks. Linden Lab imposes behavior standards, but these may be less enforceable as membership scales up and commerce enterprises move in.

There’s also the risk that Second Life will simply lose its heat and undergo a backlash thanks to inflated expectations. At least one analyst, Steve Prentice of Gartner Group, said in an interview last month that Second Life was “heading toward the peak of the hype cycle” and might undergo a bust period. Eventually, though, he said, Second Life will settle into a “plateau of productivity.”

But others believe Second Life can continue to grow, both for play and e-commerce, as long as businesses enter the world for the right reasons. “Right now, if you want to reach the digital influencers, they’re on Second Life,” says Amanda Watlington, principal of interactive marketing firm Searching for Profit and a longtime SL denizen. “Those mavens make Second Life incredibly fertile ground for testing attitudes, ideas, and products. What you’re seeing there is leading-edge behavior on a global scale.”

Watlington is so convinced of Second Life’s value as an environment that she and her husband are shopping around for a home for the Second Life version of their consulting practice. “It’s a big decision, where you’re going to locate in this virtual world,” she says. “We’ve been looking for real estate for about three months now.”