Business, and Startups, in Second Life

Whether they're designing eco-homes or a new mass transit system, entrepreneurs are finding virtual worlds provide them with an inexpensive, low-risk launching pad
Hideki Yoshinara/AFLO/Getty Images

Robert Curet, the owner of Little Wonder Studio in Burbank, Calif., has all the high-powered software you'd expect a modern toy developer to use: Rhino 4.0 for industrial modeling, Autodesk 3ds Max for animation, ZBrush for digital sculpting, and Maxon Cinema 4D for graphics, for starters. But one of his most recent creations didn't require any of them. Instead, Curet turned to the free tools available in the virtual world called Second Life, sketching out a model and mechanisms for a windup toy and making a rough estimate of the size of the parts. "It took me about half an hour to create the 3D model, where it would have taken me a week to do it before," says Curet. In the next hour and a half he took some pictures of the model, cleaned them up in Photoshop (ADBE), and sent them on to a factory in Hong Kong.

Soon he was meeting an engineer from the factory in Second Life, answering questions about the toy while the two men—each represented by animated avatars—looked at the virtual model, rotated it, and took it apart piece by piece. After that meeting the engineer was able to fabricate a real model and give Curet an accurate estimate of how much the toy would cost to manufacture.

The result: Noggin Bops, plastic windup toys that shimmy side to side while bopping their heads. In January, Curet sold the license to make and distribute the toys to California Creations in Tustin, Calif. Curet is sold on working in Second Life. "It's free, it's fun, and it's social," he says. "It allows you to work quickly and answer tons of questions about your design in three dimensions that you wouldn't be able to answer as well by drawing it out on a board."

Virtual worlds, of which Second Life is the most populous, are becoming more than just a place where Web surfers socialize, play games, or sell nonexistent products to imaginary people. Increasingly, tech-savvy businesses are using virtual worlds to design, create, and even test product concepts before they make their debut in the real world.

`OPEN TO EVERYONE'

Already, larger firms have made news with their forays into virtual worlds, particularly Starwood Hotels & Resorts (HOT), which tested a new hotel concept called Aloft. After a trial in Second Life, Starwood decided to put more seating in the lobby and install radios in the shower, among other changes.

The crucial advantage to working in virtual worlds is that they offer much more potential for customers to interact with new products, even ones that don't exist yet, says Brian Mennecke, associate professor in information management systems at Iowa State University. The cost of entry is low, too. "It's open to everyone from day one," says Paul Jackson, principal analyst with technology researcher Forrester Research (FORR). In a report that was co-authored by Jackson and released earlier this year, Jackson points out that, even with collaboration software, sharing 3D or CAD models "has proven tricky, especially when much of the required data lives in proprietary design systems." Working in virtual worlds helps solve that problem.

Curet is a fan of Second Life because it saved him time and money and made it easier to meet with his engineer in China. But other businesses are using Second Life to offer services not readily available in the real world or to build products they couldn't otherwise afford to prototype. And some entrepreneurs are using Second Life to test ideas—such as a mass transit system with individual pods for riders—that aren't feasible to prototype any other way.

TRANSPORTING CUSTOMERS

Second Life has its drawbacks, of course. Some find its design tools too crude for their purposes. "The level of detail may not be there if you want to design a microprocessor or the details of an engine, for example," says Fred Fuchs, owner of FireSabre Consulting, which provides services for people who want to do business in Second Life. There are privacy and security concerns. It can be difficult to translate ideas developed in Second Life into more mainstream design software. And it can be especially tough to get a sense of scale in Second Life, because avatars come in all different sizes. But entrepreneurs experimenting with Second Life insist that the prototyping possibilities and ease of collaboration it offers just aren't available anywhere else.

Crescendo Design, a husband-and-wife architecture firm focusing on environmentally friendly designs, has built dozens of models for its clients. They're mostly of cardboard, and they take about three days and $600 to complete. Once finished, it's hard to make changes without taking an X-Acto knife to the whole thing. To see them, clients must visit Crescendo's offices, or someone from Crescendo has to come see them. But the firm is based in Madison, Wis., and its clients are scattered throughout the Midwest. "We were driving a lot to get to clients and show them designs," says co-owner Jon Brouchoud. "Driving so many miles to build an environmentally sound home was counterintuitive."

So Brouchoud and partner Kandy Jentz-Brouchoud began meeting with clients in Second Life, where they can not only view plans for homes but also walk through lifelike 3D models. "We can invite clients inside the design concept instead of just showing them two-dimensional drawings," Brouchoud says. "It gives customers a whole new kind of visualization. There's nothing like being able to walk into what could be your home." Making changes is a whole lot easier, too. Moving a kitchen to gain a southern exposure or putting a stairwell in a more convenient location can be accomplished in just a few minutes. Brouchoud can even incorporate indigenous species into the landscaping and account for the exact topography of the building site. "Second Life has transformed the way I think about design," says Brouchoud. "Even though I can pen-and-ink a design I come up with, I often find myself jumping into Second Life to model it.... The designs are free, and it takes half the time to make the models with the in-world set of building tools." While there is architecture software that lets him make 3D models, they don't allow him to visit with multiple people "inside" the models, and they're not free.

While Brouchoud sees this as the future of design, right now it represents only about 10% of his business. Typically, only tech-savvy customers are open to using a virtual world to go through the architectural design process. But Bouchoud says he has attracted some business precisely because he's using Second Life. His Web site contains a section about Second Life, and if someone visiting his site already has an avatar, she can use the site to "teleport," or be redirected to, his "island"—the equivalent of private property—there. Brouchoud uses an island because it can be password-protected, letting him bar access to anyone other than staff and clients, should he wish to do so.

Just as in the real world, real estate in Second Life costs money. Brouchoud paid Linden Labs a $1,600 one-time fee for his island in 2006. He pays $300 in monthly rental fees on top of that, which go to support the servers that host the island. A small parcel of land on the mainland is much cheaper: $7 to $14, plus monthly fees. Brouchoud defrays the cost of his island by renting out much of it to other businesses.

Curet didn't bother to buy private real estate in Second Life, choosing instead to work in a free public space called a sandbox. When other avatars came up to him and asked what he was doing, he simply told them he was creating a new toy. He didn't worry about someone stealing his idea. "I wasn't shy about it," he says. "I knew that to do anything with this design, you would have to have a lot of other things in place in the real world—potential clients, a China factory, knowledge of plastics, access to motors—stuff the average person in Second Life just does not have."

TO THE REAL WORLD

What John Westra and business partner Tom Bush did not have was a lazy $400,000 they figured it would cost to demonstrate their new business idea. Westra already runs a $1.5 million tech consultancy called ProBiz Team in Ada, Mich. Now he and Bush want to create a video ad system using flat screens that can be installed in crowded places such as airports and restaurants. Westra realized the bulk of that money would be spent not on hardware, which is expensive enough, but on carting the system around for demos. And getting permission to run the demos wasn't going to be simple, either. "Can you imagine us going to a major airport or shopping mall and saying, 'Excuse me, we would like to borrow some wall space and set up some communication equipment for the next couple of hours for a demo'?" he asks. "We wouldn't get past the laughter."

In March, Westra started designing a prototype in Second Life. At $250 for an office and $75 a month in rental fees, Westra's costs are minimal. He was able to demonstrate the system in a variety of locations within Second Life: an airport, a shopping mall, restaurants, and bars. Westra says these demos impressed potential investors and customers by giving them a good sense of how the service would actually work. He hopes to launch in the real world by the first quarter of 2009.

For other businesses, the hurdles to real-world prototyping are much higher. Seven-person UniModal Transport Solutions in Irvine, Calif., is trying to build a personal rapid transit system called Skytran. Funded by private investors and a grant from the U.S. Transportation Dept., Skytran is conceived as an energy-efficient personal monorail-like system with pods that seat just one person. While various elements of the technology have been tested in different projects, ceo Chris Perkins knew a real-world prototype was out of the question. So Perkins turned to the computer science department at the University of California at Irvine. Associate Professor Cristina Lopes suggested modeling the design in Second Life on an island owned by her department. "This captured our imagination," says Perkins. "Here's a tool in cyberspace where we could simulate an engineered system and see if it works."

Lopes and her three-person team met weekly with UniModal engineers, trying to understand their designs and the software they wanted to use to control it. She and her team then modeled SkyTran using only the tools available in Second Life (Lopes went beyond the basic design tools and dove into Linden Scripting Language, the programming language that "runs" Second Life). That let the team build a transport system that works pretty much the way a real one would: Avatars get in the pods and ride around a short circular track.

The Second Life experiment has already led to changes in the design. "Lopes' simulation has been useful in discovering problems in virtual reality before anything gets built," says Perkins. Passengers had a disconcerting view of the track from the pods, so now the track is covered. The team also realized that the station housing the pods was too small, and that each individual pod needed some sort of obstacle avoidance feature because, over time, trees could grow over the tracks.

Perkins says the target date for production of the first SkyTran is late 2009, and that his firm is in discussion with a number of municipalities in the U.S. and Europe to install the system. By that time, residents of Second Life could be testing your idea.

Back to BWSmallBiz August/September 2008 Table of Contents

Business Exchange related topics:EntrepreneurshipVirtual WorldsArchitecture

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