Very soon, scrolling text in chat rooms will be replaced with 2-D and 3-D graphical environments, through which people will interact as avatars, or characters chosen like a piece in a board game.
At least that's the ideal scenario set forth by the dozen or so makers of virtual environments that are slowly making good on their promise to provide exciting marketing platforms in these worlds.
So far only about a dozen advertisers are pioneering in this medium with mostly entertainment promos. For instance, in Sony Pictures' "Multiplicity" Palace environment, built with 2-D software from the Burbank, Calif.,-based The Palace, (http://www.thepalace.com), people who downloaded the free software could come in and pass their avatar through the "clone tank" to transform into a Michael Keaton icon.
With such obvious opportunity for marketing and promotion, the race is on to turn these virtual worlds into commercial bazaars. In July, Time Warner Interactive spun off The Palace so it could receive additional backing from Time Warner, Intel and Softbank. Microsoft recently launched Comic-Chat, a chat environment that takes place within comic book frames on the Web, which will soon be followed by V-Chat, another 2-D world released on MSN last year.
San Francisco-based Worlds Inc. (http://www.worlds.net) has 15 different worlds up and running that are inhabited by a potential 300,000 avatars. Compared to the average of 30 seconds people might spend in a Web site, research from Worlds Chat indicates people spend on average 35-45 minutes per visit, said Christopher Dean, director of marketing at Worlds Inc. "Virtual worlds are a much more compelling experience," he said.
Because most consumers aren't willing to download software to simply view a 3-D ad, most marketers are opting to build messages within an existing world or scatter branded props throughout a world.
Colony Alpha, which started in July, is part of the Alpha Worlds system, and is offering to build and rent a virtual building decked with a client's logos for $1,500 for a year; a giant billboard linked to a client's Web site goes for $450 a year.
Liz Heller, senior VP-new media at Capital Records, discovered The Palace when she was shopping for a graphical chat room for the band Jesus Lizard. For $20, she bought the authoring software, (guests can navigate around for free), and paid $10,000 for graphics and programming to create a chat environment/fun house that reflects the artsy nature of the band.
In addition to its affordability and ease of use, Ms. Heller said "it also gave the stamp of being the artist's vision. The thing about The Palace, is that it's here; it's right now; and you don't need a high end computer to really have a great experience."
In the case of Capital Records, many of the fans of the Jesus Lizard Band fit the profile of a Gen-X cyber junkie. For Sotheby's, however, a 3-D world may be a difficult sell, which is the main reason Kathleen Held, director of digital media at Margeotes/Fertitta, New York, who oversees the site for the New York auction house, is sticking to a Web site for now. "We're entertained and fascinated by it, but I think it's a little too out in front for our clients," Ms. Held said.
GRAPHICAL ICONS INTIMIDATING?
Another obstacle to virtual worlds is whether chatters feel intimidated when they're suddenly represented graphically. It's a non issue with Rich Giuliani, who oversees the digital media department at Chicago's The Leap Partnership and is trying to get his client The Chicago Tribune to pass off on a Palace environment for its new online arts and entertainment guide Metro Mix. Guests can easily pass through many of the worlds with generic avatars, Mr. Giuliani said.
A bigger issue is fostering trust in these online communities and protecting the privacy of their citizens, Denise Shephard, a program manager at Microsoft in the advanced research department, added. "These are big issues that everyone is struggling with," she said.
A move to standardize 3-D technology came in September, when Velocity, Chaco Communciations, IBM Corp., and Worlds Inc. announced specifications for a universal standard for avatars. If approved, this would allow avatars to roam through many different environments.
Industry executives predict that avatars will soon be embedded with personal ID's.
Worlds' Mr. Dean said there are also plans to hide credit card data in an avatar for commercial transactions. "We think there's going to be a huge Web of Worlds, and every Web site will have a virtual world tied into it," he added.