July 14, 2008

If Google Owned the World …


By Alana Semuels

Los Angeles Times

As if Google didn't have a strong-enough hold on the planet, it launched its own world last week - a virtual world, to be exact.

Lively, which Google calls a "virtual experience," allows you to create an avatar, decorate your own virtual room, invite friends to your room and do things you've always dreamed of, such as blow up oil barrels on a deserted island.

Unlike popular virtual worlds such as Second Life, Lively doesn't require you to download new software. All you need is a browser plug- in.

Lively is distributed more widely than Second Life. Its rooms will live on Web pages on Facebook and other sites, so you might stumble across them when browsing the Internet.

Rooms can be private spaces, with entry by invitation only, or open-topic rooms, where you can meet people interested in discussing topics you enjoy, such as Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston or Google. It also ties into other Google services. You can stream YouTube videos into your virtual living room or post your Picasa pictures on your walls.

"Our intent is to be part of the users' everyday experience," said Niniane Wang, an engineering manager at Google who helped create Lively. "We designed it to be easy to use."

An early look into Lively suggests that Google succeeded at that mission. It's easy to choose avatars from a number of different options, including a turban-wearing bear. It's easy to change avatars' clothes, hair color and skin color. It's easy to drag and drop furniture and lava lamps to position them around your room. Want your turban-wearing bear to wave to the hot mama across the room? Just type "wave." Want him to giggle? Just type "laugh."

Lively looks hip, too. It's sort of a combination between anime and a Disney movie, with wide-eyed avatars and colorful, angular scenery. Chat bubbles are brightly colored and attached to avatars with long stems.

All of this leads to the big question: Is Lively going to be the site that finally brings virtual worlds into the mainstream?

Probably, said Chris Sherman, executive director of Virtual Worlds Management, an industry trade group.

"With a player like Google jumping into this, you're going to see a lot more people understand this space and pay attention to it," Sherman said.

Lively's popularity with the virtual-world crowd will depend on a few factors. Will Google allow avatars to buy and sell virtual goods? Will there be any currency at all in Lively? Will users be able to create things from scratch?

A Google spokeswoman said there isn't any currency in Lively but that users will be able to add objects from Lively's catalog to their rooms free of charge. And users can't yet create their own items but should be able to down the road.

With all these features and more rolling out later, Lively is likely to give Second Life and other popular virtual worlds a run for their money, said Michael Gartenberg, research director at Jupiter Research. That's because, like most Google products, Lively is free. Second Life charges $9.95 per month for premium membership.

Second Life isn't going to sit tight while other virtual worlds try to attract mainstream users, though. It announced Tuesday that it had worked with IBM to figure out how to teleport avatars from one virtual world to another, a development it called "a historic day for Second Life, and for virtual worlds in general." That means that down the line, an avatar in a world such as Second Life might be able to visit a virtual world such as Habbo with ease.

Maybe some day they'll visit Lively too - unless the virtual- world space ain't big enough for the both of them.

On The Net

www.lively.com On The Net

www.lively .com

Originally published by BY ALANA SEMUELS.

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