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New Portal to Second Life: Your Phone

Cell-phone users can now make the ultimate long-distance call: to friends in the virtual world.

With new software for mobile phones, citizens of the burgeoning online universe Second Life will never have to leave their cozy virtual world, even when they’re away from their computers. The new software is a program that lets cellular users with Java-based, Internet-capable phones log in to Second Life remotely, see who else is “in-world,” and communicate with them via text messaging.

Software from Comverse will let cell-phone users interact with citizens of Second Life, a virtual world with 3.5 million residents–and counting.

Comverse, the wireless multimedia networking company that developed the software, demonstrated it this week for wireless carriers at the 3GSM conference in Barcelona, Spain. Attendees using Comverse’s phones could see and manipulate avatars who appeared in Comverse’s virtual 3GSM booth inside Second Life. Using simple commands, they could direct the avatar to walk around the booth, identify other avatars, and send them greetings via SMS, MMS, or instant messaging. And in a twist typical of today’s virtual environments, people logged in to Second Life over traditional PC connections could walk into the virtual Comverse booth and pick up virtual phones that connected them directly to fellow members logged in from their real phones at the real booth.

Comverse also demonstrated software that connects users to Second Life from any platform that allows an Internet Protocol (IP) video connection, such as an advanced TV set-top box.

Second Life is home to 3.5 million users, at least 10 percent of whom log on regularly. Launched in 2003 by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, the 3-D world is growing so quickly–in both population and virtual acreage–that it’s being called “the next MySpace.” Marketers sensing an opportunity to reach Second Life users, 87 percent of whom are in the critical 18-to 44-year-old demographic, are rushing to create virtual billboards, information booths, corporate headquarters, and private by-invitation-only islands with media and conference facilities. (In a recent survey by the American Advertising Federation, marketing directors said that the spread of advertisements on Second Life for real-world companies and services was the most surprising marketing trend of 2006.)

To reach Second Life, users have hitherto needed a cable or DSL broadband Internet connection and a laptop or desktop PC with 512 megabytes of system memory and a recently manufactured graphics card. Second Life software for cell phones and IPTV devices could not only allow thousands of members to track the world’s virtual goings-on remotely, but it could also open up possibilities for those who don’t always have access to a PC that meets Second Life’s stiff technical requirements.

“We’re unleashing the virtual world from the PC and allowing it to be available on any terminal–that’s the benefit for the end user,” says Daphna Steinmetz, chief technology officer at Comverse’s Innovation Labs, in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Second Lifers first learned about the software in a February 8 Reuters report by embedded Second Life correspondent “Adam Reuters” (the avatar of the news agency’s Second Life bureau chief, who in “Real Life” is a technology journalist named Adam Pasick). Several bloggers have said they’re anxious to try the new software. For cellular operators, says Steinmetz, the program’s appeal should be twofold: not only will cellular subscribers have an incentive to spend more time using lucrative broadband data services, but users already inside Second Life will be able to communicate with friends on specific cellular networks using virtual phones branded and sold by the carriers themselves. “Operators get an immediate audience of 3.5 million people who don’t necessarily belong to their geographical area,” says Steinmetz.

Average Second Lifers in Europe may get to use the software within “a few months,” according to Steinmetz. At least one major European wireless carrier is close to signing a deal with Comverse to include the software on its phones, she says.

The company has no word on how soon the software might be available to cellular subscribers in North America, but Steinmetz says that so many operators and other conference-goers from around the world tried to visit Comverse’s Second Life booth that the company had to block the virtual doors and restrict access to invited guests.

While Comverse may be the first to tap into such a large potential community of virtual-world inhabitants, its software isn’t the first example of an attempt to port online environments to mobile phones. In December, Habbo Hotel, a teen-oriented Sims-like environment run by Finnish firm Sulake, launched Mini Friday, a stripped-down version of Habbo for phones. And Comverse is likely to have more competition soon, thanks to Linden Lab’s recent decision to open-source the software code behind the Second Life viewer, the browser-like client program that allows Second Lifers to connect to the online world.

Meanwhile, the population and economy of Second Life continue to swell. Half a million new members joined between November and December 2006, and another 865,000 between December and January, according to statistics released by Linden Lab. Economic transactions in January alone amounted to 1.34 billion Linden dollars–the equivalent of almost $5 million in real U.S. dollars. The government of Sweden recently announced plans to open a virtual embassy inside Second Life. It will be a replica of the real Swedish embassy in Washington, D.C.

Basic membership in Second Life is free, but to buy virtual land and build structures, members must pay a $9.95 monthly subscription fee, and more in virtual “property taxes,” depending on the amount of land they own.

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