In the latest expansion beyond its main mission of organizing the world's information, Internet search leader Google Inc. hopes to orchestrate more virtual socializing on the Web.
Google debuted a free service Tuesday in which three-dimensional software enables people to congregate in fantasy rooms and other computer-manufactured versions of real life. The service, called "Lively," represents Google's answer to an already well-established site, "Second Life," where people deploy animated alter egos known as avatars to navigate virtual reality.
Google thinks "Lively" will encourage even more people to dive into alternate realities because it isn't tethered to one Web site like Second Life, and it doesn't cost anything to use. After installing a small packet of software from lively.com, a user can enter Lively from other Web sites, like social networking sites and blogs.
Google already has created a Lively application that works on Facebook.com, one of the Web's hottest hangouts, and is working on a version suitable for an even larger online social network, News Corp.'s MySpace.com.
"We know people already spend a lot of time online socializing, so we just want to try to make it more enjoyable," said Niniane Wang, a Google engineering manager who oversaw Lively's creation over the past year.
Lively's users will be able to sculpt an avatar that can be male, female or even a different species. An avatar can assume a new identity, change clothes or convey emotions with a few clicks of the mouse.
The service also enables users to create different digital environments to roam, from a child's room to an exotic island. The rooms can be decorated with a wide variety of furniture, including large-screen televisions that can be set up to play different clips from YouTube.com, Google's video-sharing service.
Lively users can then invite their friends and family into their virtual realities, where they can chat, hug, cry, laugh and interact as if they were characters in a video game.
As a precaution, Google is requiring Lively's users to be at least 13 years old — a constraint that hasn't been enough to prevent young children from running into trouble on other social spots on the Web.
Google spent several months testing Lively among a group of Arizona State University students before opening the service to the public through its "Labs" section — a technology sandbox that the Mountain View-based company set up for its experimental products.
Although Google is best known for the search engine that generates most of its profits, the company has introduced other services that are widely used without making much, if any, money. Google's peripheral products include its 3-D "Earth" software and Picasa for sharing photos.
Google has no plans to allow advertising within Lively, Wang said.