Virtual worlds aren't dead--they're enjoying a re-awakening, as marketers learn to connect both the real and virtual, say observers.
Mary Ellen Gordon of Market Truths, a U.S.-based research firm specializing in virtual worlds, said in an interview with ZDNet Asia, companies expressing interest in virtual worlds such as Second Life are compelled to learn the media-consumption habits of the new generation.
This marks a contrast against the initial wave of companies which flocked to Second Life for mostly publicity, and also "during which at least some companies did not seem to take the time to really understand virtual worlds or to think about how to use them to contribute to their overall business objectives", said Gordon.
She named some of these business needs as saving time and costs related to traveling, by using virtual platforms to carry out Web conferences.
But it is virtual worlds' ability to cut across real-world boundaries--geographic, social, financial, to name a few--that is attracting companies and users alike, said Gordon.
"Virtual [worlds] give people the chance to meet more people across these barriers, and are not constrained by circumstances [such as] physical location, family responsibilities, lack of financial resources and disabilities," she said.
Companies, too, hope to cut across these boundaries. Singaporean retailer, Tangs, which opened a virtual outlet in March this year, allows visitors to browse and purchase items with virtual currency to dress up their avatars.
Lin Pei Hua, assistant vice president of marketing and communications, Tangs, told ZDNet Asia the company hopes to meld both real and virtual worlds: digital purchases of items within Tangs' Second Life store gives users a 15 percent discount off the same item in the real world.
On crossing geographical boundaries, Lin said the virtual store gives Tangs the "opportunity to introduce the store and our private fashion labels to shoppers from around the world".
The retailer has plans to launch an e-commerce service within the world, which will allow for Second Life purchases to be shipped to consumers in the real world, she said.
There are other companies which are relying on their presence within Second Life to create brand awareness and immerse new employees in company culture.
According to a 2008 Market Truths survey of some 500 Second Life, 60 percent of respondents perceived the presence of real life commercial brands in Second Life as "mostly positive or at least more positive than negative".
Respondents also named IBM most frequently, as the brand seen within the virtual world. The next most-mentioned brand was Nike.
Ari Fishkind, public affairs manager for IBM Research, said in an interview the computer giant's presence in Second Life has broadened from publicity vehicle to that of an "informal" meeting place. Fishkind cited examples of IBM's higher-profile researchers using the platform to meet and greet visitors, as well as its recent hosting of an Arts festival.
"You'll continue to see an IBM presence that performs an ambassadorial type of role for the company, and reflects our participation in both the commercial and non-commercial communities," he said.
The company is also using Second Life to hold internal meetings. Last year, a virtual meeting which was held in place of its annual conference of computer scientists, called the IBM Academy of Technology, saved the company "hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel expenses [and] helped participants get a real sense of community, collaboration and camaraderie--and let them get back to their daily responsibilities that much faster", said Fishkind.
Gordon said the number of Second Life users has been growing "fairly steadily" since 2006, where the count stood at less than 10,000. There are now about 70,000 to 80,000 users concurrently now, she said.
A virtual "wall" to write on
One social networking site has its eye on its own virtual world, but it intends for its world to resemble social networks more than real life.
Hi5's vice president of products and user experience and design, Anil Dharni, told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview the site is not building a full-blown virtual world such as Second Life, but intends to "blend" the typical social networking experience with virtual aspects.
Where "Version one" of the virtual world movement required users install a separate client, advances in Web technology such as Flash and Erlang makes "Version two" possible, where sites can come to life within a browser more easily, said Dharni.
"There is a movement around making the Web more real-time... We're starting to see static Web pages become more dynamic, and you don't need downloads to make them more immersive these days," he said.
And this "seamless integration" of virtual worlds is key to user acceptance. "We're not going to make users turn [the virtual world] on or off. The more immersive, the more user engagement is expected," said Dharni.
When Hi5's virtual features launch, users will be able to carry out their typical interactions such as writing on friends' "walls", but with added gestures such as an avatar giving another a high-five along with the message, explained Dharni.
Market Truths' Gordon said: "A lot of people value the ability to interact with anyone anywhere in real time in a way that feels more direct and spontaneous than the text-based parts of the Web."
She said new media consumers who are attracted to virtual worlds tend to consume traditional media such as TV, newspapers and magazines less than the general population.
Reaching users through virtual worlds can provide companies an inroad to capturing the attention of the younger "digital natives", Gordon explained.