July 9, 2008
Google Gives Chat a Cartoonish Look
By Brad Stone
Google, known for its plain-Jane approach to Web design, has come up with something much wackier.
On Tuesday the company introduced Lively, an online tool that allows people to embody a cartoonish online avatar and have text- based conversations with friends and other Internet users in virtual chat rooms. The rooms can be added to any blog or Web site.
Google introduced the new product in a post on its official blog - its characteristically understated way of introducing new features to the world. It can be reached at www.lively.com, but it is officially part of Google Labs, an area of the company's site where it showcases projects that remain in the beta, or experimental, phase.
Lively and similar products from other companies have the potential to change the way people interact over the Web. Online chat rooms are two-dimensional - they include text, and sometimes voice and video.
Lively tries to make that conversation three-dimensional, more interactive and more fun. As if they were playing a game, users choose from a selection of unrealistically handsome or Disneyesque avatars. They can also create their own chat rooms, which can be posted to a blog or social network profile as easily as a YouTube video.
Up to 20 people can occupy a room and chat with one another. (Text appears as cartoon-style bubbles atop the avatars.) Users can design their own virtual environments, hanging on the walls videos from YouTube and photos from Picasa, Google's photo service, as if they were pieces of art.
Inside Google, the product was headed by Niniane Wang, an engineering manager. Students at the University of Arizona have been testing Lively for several months.
Wang wrote in the blog post that she developed Lively as a "20 percent project," referring to Google's philosophy that employees should spend one day a week working on projects outside of their day- to-day responsibilities.
Her spare time could cause some problems for companies with similar ideas. Second Life, the virtual world run by Linden Labs of San Francisco, is known for its much larger virtual world, where hundreds of thousands of users can enter at the same time. But it is accessible through a separate program, not a Web browser. (Lively, which works only on Windows computers for now, requires the downloading of a bit of add-on software.)
Mark Kingdon, chief executive of Linden Labs, said Second Life's value was not just in 3-D chat but also in more elaborate environments where people can work, play, teach, and buy and sell virtual products. "Users are highly motivated to create and transact in Second Life to the tune of almost a million dollars a day in user- to-user transactions," Kingdon said.
Vivaty, a virtual-world start-up in Menlo Park, California, backed by the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, opened its virtual doors Tuesday. Vivaty's product is a similar 3-D chat room that runs on Facebook and through AOL Instant Messenger. In one version now available on Facebook, users can create a virtual dorm room and decorate it with furniture from Target.
Keith McCurdy, Vivaty's chief executive and a former executive at the game giant Electronic Arts, said Google's entry was a validation of the concept. He said that Vivaty could get more traction by putting its virtual worlds on every Web site - even those controlled by Google's rivals.
"We are not beholden to any one camp or approach," he said. "We are trying to create an open system where lots of people have branded virtual scenes."
Google's success is not assured, of course. Other test products it has introduced have languished, like Product Search, originally known as Froogle.