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The top 8 Second Life virtual businesses

Second Life showrooms promote tech firms

I was standing in a spacious entryway, chatting with the chief science officer at Sun Microsystems. His short-cropped hair, V-neck sweater and glasses were a sure sign of technical prowess.

Peeking just over the horizon, the sun cast a warm glow over a nearby server rack. I was wearing a Sun baseball hat, a T-shirt with the Java logo emblazoned on the front and a purple lapel pin. I was also holding a Sun helium-filled balloon that was at least three times as big as my head.

"Nice facility you have here," I said, as he suddenly vanished into thin air.

"It happens once in a while," said another Sun employee.

In the virtual world of Second Life, anything goes - even if your goal is to build a corporate brand, hold ad hoc user group meetings, sponsor a conference or help end users find a video card driver.

Here's a list of the top eight sites worth visiting. To find them, just register at SecondLife.com, install, click Search and type the company name to find its island and transport. Save us a T-shirt if you go!

IBM

With as many as 230 employees actively involved, and almost two dozen islands (some public, some private), IBM is intent on showcasing more than just its products and services - it has even invested $100 million in real US dollars for companies to showcase their ideas. For example, there's a Circuit City store on one island where you can ‘test out’ camcorders and HDTV sets. IBM is currently toying with the idea of providing design services for other companies that want a Second Life presence.

What makes the IBM presence even more interesting, though, is what takes place behind closed doors. Regular ‘brainstorming’ meetings with clients have produced interesting ideas, such as a grocer that would sell items in Second Life and have them delivered to homes, and a fuel company that would hold regular training session for employees - which would not be open to the public.

"I think IBM is a little more serious about why it's there," says Laszlo. "They're using their space for collaboration among their various R&D staffs around the world, and experiments on UI evolution and virtual environments."

Hopefully, the ideas will all make it to the physical realm.

Pontiac

Second only to IBM in its innovative use of a virtual world, the Pontiac presence on Second Life is quite impressive: Its red logo is found on carpeted halls and sprawling multilevel glass buildings.

There's a dealership where you can take recent models out for a test drive, such as the Pontiac Solstice GXP. A car garage lets you customise vehicles to your liking, including the paint job and styling.

The most interesting feature on the island is an application for Second Lifers to own land on and build whatever they want, for free - including kart-racing tracks, jet-pack courses, skyscrapers or just about anything they can think of. It's a unique model because Pontiac pays for the land to encourage innovation.

Sun Microsystems

The Second Life teleport blurb for Sun Microsystems says the company has a "100 percent focus on network computing”.When I visited, this popular destination was brimming with client/server-related chat sessions: two jet-pack-wearing visitors were talking about mobile phones and Java, and several people gathered around a product demo that shows the cooling effects of Sun servers in a data centre.

"Second Life allows us to do things we could never do in real life," says Chris Melissinos, Sun's chief gaming officer. "People feel less inhibited and will ask more direct questions about products."

The company has no plans to sell products directly through Second Life, however, noting that the platform is not reliable or scalable. Game servers can only hold about 70 people at once, according to Linden Labs. And there's no file encryption. In fact, to run a Second Life server, companies have to open multiple ports in their corporate firewalls - which tells hackers exactly how to break into company resources. (Most companies use a hosted service to avoid any potential break-ins.)


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