Gold rush is on for virtual worlds

USA Today reports that companies are flocking to market themselves in virtual worlds, game-like and usually three-dimensional online universes, but the long-term shape of this fledgling industry is far from clear.

“We’re pretty much where the Internet was in the mid-90s,” said Steve Prentice, a vice president at technology research group Gartner, echoing a view held by other participants Wednesday at the Virtual Worlds conference in Manhattan.

MTV executives touted their TV-show spinoffs Virtual Laguna Beach and Virtual Hills, which have attracted 600,000 registered users since they were launched six months ago. Almost like the real Southern California, these 3-D online spaces have perfect weather, but in an improvement on real life, its users are all represented by attractive, slim and young online embodiments known as avatars.

As an example of the branding opportunities, Bostwick said MTV has sold more than 11,402 virtual cans of Pepsi. The buyers can’t drink them, since they exist only on the screen, but they act as a form of decoration for their avatars.

These avatars can interact with each other via text chats and commerce, providing a social element that virtual-world pioneers see as more realistic and engaging than chat rooms and MySpace pages.

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