When Toyota Motor Corp. wanted to promote its new Scions to young buyers, it turned to one of the growing number of digital design companies doing business in the popular online universe Second Life.
The firm, Millions of Us, conjured up Scion City — a futuristic urban island with a dealership that sells the cars and a racetrack where consumers' online personas can take them for virtual test drives.
"The goal is to build a community in Second Life that is really engaged and really excited and really involved," said Reuben Steiger, 35, chief executive of Sausalito, Calif.-based Millions of Us.
Designing attractions to capture the attention of those online visitors is becoming big business as major corporations move to establish marketing footholds in 3-D virtual worlds such as Second Life, which was founded in 2003 by San Francisco-based Linden Lab.
While it feels like a video game with cartoonish-looking graphics, computer users easily become immersed in the action via cyberstand-ins known as avatars. Through their animated alter-egos, users can travel the simulated expanse and chat, fly, dance or even simulate sex with others.
‘Walking in will be like stepping into a movie’
"Five years from now, it will be near-photo quality," Steiger said. "The experience of walking in will be like stepping into a movie."
Second Life now boasts more than 3 million registered users worldwide, and Linden Lab estimates about 1.3 million users logged onto the realm in the past month.
Companies pitching everything from virtual T-shirts to entertainment have followed the crowd.
Since launching in July, Millions of Us has done projects for General Motors Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Warner Bros. Records, Microsoft Corp., 20th Century Fox, Intel Corp. and rapper Jay-Z, among others. Other major companies that have established a presence in Second Life include IBM Corp., Dell Inc., CNet Networks Inc. and Adidas AG.
Computer users have been gathering in 3-D, virtual environments for years using games such as World of Warcraft and Star Wars: Galaxies.
Companies behind those games employ their own cadre of programmers and designers to build the worlds from scratch. Users have limited leeway, if any, to modify their virtual behavior or create new objects.
Second Life, however, comes with a built-in interface to transform geometric shapes into just about anything, and users can take classes within the realm or use tutorials to beef up their object-building skills.
Those who take the time to learn a more advanced programming language also can write scripts that control the movement of avatars or how they interact with objects.
Props from elaborate to rudimentary
Users have created everything from flying birds to waves crashing ashore by their tropical resort. And they retain the intellectual property rights to whatever they create.
A surprising number of structures within Second Life are richly elaborate, with design and function on a par with content seen in professionally designed games. The best simulate real-world details, such as landscaping, different textures for brick or marble, and realistic lighting effects.
Many other structures, however, are rudimentary and unpolished. Often they are simple boxlike shapes with few or no objects inside. Some are missing walls or are just unfinished floating slabs.
That disparity in quality is reminiscent of the early days of the Web, when just about anyone with a few HTML skills could make a personal Web site. Companies seeking more compelling presentations often turned to Web design firms.
The same dynamic has fueled demand for 3-D design houses. Dozens of willing developers around the world are listed on the Second Life Web site alone.
"Most companies who are doing things in Second Life are reaching out to specialist designers to craft their experience," said Mark Kingdon, CEO of digital marketing agency Organic Inc. in San Francisco.
Creating a virtual destination packed with interactive content takes more than an expert in the digital stitching that keeps Second Life together.
Artists, writers, marketing gurus and others are often needed to develop everything from the look and design of a project to event programming within the space that will keep people coming back.
Virtual users sampling virtual products
Millions of Us has 13 full-time staffers and a stable of 60 contract artists and programmers it can hire as needed, said Steiger, a former Linden Lab executive. It took his company about 10 weeks to build Scion City.
Steiger said an initial build might cost a client $75,000 to $100,000. Another $50,000 might pay for six or so events at the site. Monthly support fees could add another $10,000 a month to the cost, Steiger said.
The average cost of a project in Second Life for a major company runs in the low six-figure range, Steiger and other developers said.
At this stage, that's still a relatively modest investment for major corporations, Kingdon said.
"A lot of these companies are treating it as marketing research and development," he said. "It's a small, growing audience now. It doesn't offer the reach of say, MySpace, by any stretch of the imagination."
Even so, visitors to the branded virtual playgrounds can potentially become far more engaged with a brand than by simply browsing a Web site with banner ads.
"A good campaign, you can expect a lot of people to pick up and use your virtual product for hours," said Sibley Verbeck, CEO of The Electric Sheep Co. Inc.
AOL's Second Life mall
Earlier this month, AOL launched an interactive Second Life mall dubbed AOL Pointe, where visitors can buy clothes for their avatars, rip it up in a skate park and gather in an amphitheater to watch videos, among other activities.
Like many other companies, AOL sees the site as the next step for the Web, an Internet in 3-D.
"There's a possibility that this could bring a whole new aspect to computing and to community," said Adrienne Meisels, AOL's vice president of new business. "It's a learning platform for us."
Washington, D.C.-based Electric Sheep built AOL's site in Second Life and has designed other projects for Major League Baseball, Yahoo Inc., Nissan and Sony BMG Music Entertainment.
The firm, which takes its name from the Philip K. Dick novel that inspired the 1982 film "Blade Runner," has also worked on projects in other virtual worlds separate from Second Life.
In one example, last year, the firm built content for MTV's Virtual Laguna Beach, the online 3-D hub for fans of the show "Laguna Beach."
Verbeck, 31, declined to discuss company revenue. But he said it launched about two years ago with only a handful of employees and now has 50 people on staff.
"There's an incredible amount of demand," Verbeck said. "Our biggest problem is hiring great people."