Millions of Launches

Recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in the virtual world of Second Life
The New Globe Theatre in Second Life

It’s just one launch, actually, but it’s happening later today: It’s called Millions of Us, a new 3D net services company, and it’s headed up by Reuben Steiger, former evangelist at Linden Lab (makers of Second Life). Millions of Us will help businesses “understand and harness the power of virtual worlds,” according to its Web site. Though Reuben’s currently working alone from a small office in San Francisco’s SoMa district, hiring developers as needed, Millions of Us has already completed two notable pilot projects, and has two more clients signed on for larger projects, including a major record label and a Hollywood effects company.

When I saw him last night, Reuben was definitely excited. He left Linden Lab a month or two back, and has described a 3pointD professional services company to me as almost the only decision that makes sense at the moment. The two pilot projects that Millions of Us has already completed are impressive enough. One was a virtual fashion show and showroom built in Second Life for the nice new shopping-and-tagging site StyleHive (which has been catching on fast since its own launch). Visitors to the showroom can purchase virtual versions of the real-world home furnishing on display there, but they can also click on an object and be sent directly to the StyleHive page that will let them order the real-world version for their real-world home.

The screenshot at the top of this post is the exterior view of a re-imagined Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, designed by Sir Norman Foster’s firm, Foster and Partners. As its other pilot project, Millions of Us has created a model of the theatre in Second Life, and plans to bring scenes from Shakespeare into the world as part of a demonstration to help garner support for the real-world theater, which is planned for Governor’s Island in New York. Reuben showed me around the SL version last night, and it’s quite a nice build. Plans are to perform scenes from Shakespeare plays using custom animations and VOIP, rather than text.

Millions of Us, which will focus initially on the entertainment and media industries, joins the Electric Sheep Company (anchor sponsors of and Rivers Run Red as one of the major entrants (or one of the only entrants) to the emerging 3pointD services space. Reuben has helped guide more than one startup effort in the past, and is totally enthusiastic about this one. Having spent a year and a half at Linden Lab, he certainly has the most inside track on Second Life. But, he says, Millions of Us will be platform-agnostic, and will offer solutions in a variety of 3D online spaces, including Google Earth. The Electric Sheep are taking a similar cross-platform approach. This could well come in handy, especially given the problems faced by Wells Fargo when that company first launched a project in Second Life. Unable to get what they wanted there, that project has now moved to ActiveWorlds.

Is this all much ado about nothing, as the poster in the screenshot reads? The question is whether there’s enough business to go round. It’s unclear how much demand there is for the services these companies would like to provide. Most of what’s being generated seems to be happening on the sales end, and many of the projects that have been announced in the space feel more like demonstrations of what can be done in virtual worlds than real added-value propositions for the clients. This isn’t always the case, but that’s often the perception. The very question of how to add value within such spaces isn’t yet clear, though, and the tools available are still in early form.

The sector will likely develop along two avenues, at least for the moment. The first will be proprietary solutions that harness the power of 3D online environments to provide some functionality beyond the World Wide Web. Wells Fargo’s project — an avatarized space designed to educate young people about money management (and marry them early to the Wells Fargo brand, of course) — is a perfect example. It doesn’t matter to Wells Fargo whether the project flies in Second Life or ActiveWorlds, because Wells Fargo is buying the technology and providing its own audience.

The second case is almost (but not quite) the reverse. Fashion shows and things like the MTV events that have been held in Second Life rely more on the buzz that SL provides than they do the technology. The technology is integral to most such projects, but it’s still being used in ain’t-that-cool mode. News of SL still reaches many more people than the world’s 200,000 registered members. If virtual worlds aren’t able to integrate themselves more deeply into real-world business and society soon, that may change as attention shifts elsewhere. A growing population could counter this, if SL comes to be seen as a tool of viral marketing. In any case, such solutions should only become more interesting as new uses for the technology emerge.

From a 3pointD perspective, I find the former category more interesting. I’d love to see something emerge from all this that drew people into virtual worlds not because they’re fascinating, but because someone creates an app that lets a virtual world add value for the user. Will such a thing come from any of the companies now working the space? Hard to say. A lot of energy at the moment is focused on simply finding enough clients to stay afloat. Services companies aren’t generally the first choice of venture capitalists.

The business will probably be a hard sell for some time, but I’m convinced that one of these companies, probably sooner rather than later, will find the right client, create the right service, and come up with something that will turn a virtual world into a platform that many people will want to use, not just hang out in. Given the state of Web 2.0, though, such a creation could come from a small team working on its own behalf. But it will come. And when it does, it seems to me that companies like Millions of Us, the Electric Sheep and Rivers Run Red could stand to profit considerably, if they’re positioned to handle the kind of development clients will demand.

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