Sun enters virtual world to connect with developers

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Sun Microsystems last month broke virtual ground as the first Fortune 500 company to hold a full-scale media event in the online world of Second Life.

Second Life allows more than 1 million residents to lead a double, online life free from the constraints of reality. Inhabitants can look like anything and do anything and, since the online virtual community is not a video game with an objective or a linear narrative, people involved in the world simply live-they consume products, make friends, develop property and manufacture and sell goods much like inhabitants of The Sims video game.

Sun Chief Researcher John Gage appeared in this online world in the form of an avatar, or digitally animated alter ego, to launch the company's official presence in Second Life, debut its new virtual Sun Pavilion and introduce Project Darkstar-a software program designed to help online game developers with server-side technology.

While about 60 people attended the event, Chris Melissinos, chief gaming officer at Sun, said: "There were no members of the press in an actual audience. It was all done virtually, and that's pretty cool." He "attended" the conference from the comfort of his home in northern Virginia, while Gage was in the Sun office in Santa Clara, Calif. Philip Rosedale, CEO of Second Life publisher Linden Labs, joined from San Francisco.

While the press conference marked a first for Sun, and a benchmark for the b-to-b marketing world, Second Life is no stranger to marketing. The role-playing universe, which was launched in 2003, has become, in addition to a virtual playground and social networking venue, a low-barrier testing ground for products and promotions.

Companies such as American Apparel and Nike Inc. have established shops that let players buy products for their avatars using "Linden dollars." (One U.S. dollar is equal to about 400 Linden dollars. Users enter real credit cards numbers at virtual ATMs to exchange money, and the site sees monthly transactions in millions of U.S. dollars.)

Other companies such as Wells Fargo & Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. USA throw elaborate parties on private islands, host educational games for kids and sponsor competitions with cool, virtual prizes.

Of Sun's recent foray into Second Life, Melissinos said, "It's partially about being able to market a message, but it's really about being able to get close to people who are able to drive the adoption of new technologies."

Project Darkstar, Sun's new server side technology for online gaming, makes it imperative for Sun to break into the world of developers. "We're getting closer to this community that's close to this online experience, explaining to this user what Sun is doing in this industry," Melissinos said. "We're using [Second Life] to have a dialogue with the people who are really using these services.

"The Second Life demographic isn't 8-year-old boys," he said: "It's 28-year-old boys, and 28-year-old boys who are technically savvy enough to be really involved in Second Life are likely to be CIOs. They're likely to be 28-year-old computer technology professionals."

Tony Hynes, senior VP at PR agency Bite Communications, which handled Sun's Second Life debut, said the key to b-to-b marketing in Second Life is to know what the demographic is and create something of real value to residents.

He added that, although companies such as Wells Fargo Bank have bought virtual real estate and set up shop, the companies that could really benefit are those targeting creative, technologically advanced individuals in fields like design and architecture.

'Wonderful testing ground'

Steve Rubel, senior VP at PR firm Edelman's me2revolution group, said he thinks Second Life is a wonderful testing ground, and suggested it for some of his clients, but with a word of caution: "Second Life is still really new, and it doesn't have the millions of users that MySpace or blogging sites have because you have to really want to get involved. Not only are there download and processing requirements but there is also a cost if you want to do more than just explore. That's why there are so many more downloads than active accounts."

Anyone can buy property in Second Life. At press time, the world consisted of about 100 square miles, with each acre being leased for about $20 per month. Sun hired Millions of Us, a marketing services agency, to handle the construction of Sun Pavilion and the technology involved in hosting the event. While Millions of Us declined to disclose what Sun paid, its services-from consultation and strategy to programming and event planning-range from about $15,000 up to $200,000, according to Reuben Steiger, CEO of Millions of Us.

Melissinos said to be successful in Second Life takes knowing your audience and tailoring products and activities to them specifically.

"Unless you're able to allow the consumer to make the experience their own, your services will not survive," he said. "That's going to be the demand rolling forward-for everything we do." On the drawing board for Sun is a forum where people who are interested in gaming can communicate with live developers. And possibly a holiday party "with a real live disc jockey spinning music that streams into the world," he said. "It can't all be about business."

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