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The Virtual World as Web Browser

Linden Lab is working on making it easier to import data from the Web into Second Life.

Virtual worlds can seem walled off from the rest of the Internet. Many, including Linden Lab’s popular virtual world Second Life, can’t be accessed through ordinary Web browsers: they require separately downloaded software. A Web link embedded in Second Life will open an outside browser window, pulling a user out of the immersive experience that is one of the virtual world’s main draws. But Linden Lab is now adjusting its technology to make it easier to bring data into its virtual world from the larger Web and from users’ desktops.

3-D data: A system built by Rivers Run Red, a company that creates content for virtual worlds, can already import Web data into Second Life; the tree shown here, for example, changes color in response to real-time stock-market data. But Linden Lab aims to make this kind of data integration much easier and more portable.

“What we’re trying to do is create a capability to create a rich way to experience a variety of media types that typically have to be seen or read or processed on the Web in 2-D,” says Joe Miller, vice president of platform and technology development for Second Life. With Linden Lab’s new system, for example, Second Life users could create business cards linked to external Web pages, so that they’re updated when the pages are, or virtual MP3 players connected to Web radio services. The company is also working to make it easy for users to share 2-D data such as Microsoft Word files or PowerPoint presentations with other users inside the virtual world. Miller says that Linden Lab plans to deliver these new technologies by the end of this year, as part of its Web Media Initiative.

“Virtual worlds are only as good as the content you bring into them,” says Justin Bovington, CEO of Rivers Run Red, a company that builds places and content for virtual worlds, including Second Life. Bovington believes that users’ level of immersion in 3-D virtual worlds can make online collaboration easier.

Earlier attempts to integrate the Web into Second Life had limitations. Clicking a link within Second Life launched a Web browser and opened a typical 2-D page. Linden Lab also allowed people to pull content in from the Web and associate it with a spot of land inside the world. More recently, Miller says, an open-source project called uBrowser created a system that can superimpose any Web content that Mozilla can display on a 3-D surface that can be embedded in Second Life. For example, a resident of the virtual world could use the system to build a pillar that was constantly updated with her posts on Twitter, which would wind around the pillar in three dimensions.

The drawback of these approaches, Miller says, is that they’re still tied to particular pieces of virtual land. And since the outside content doesn’t pass through Linden Lab’s servers, it won’t necessarily appear exactly the same way and at exactly the same time to all viewers. The company is currently working on allowing people to associate live Web content with so-called prims, the geometric building blocks that Second Life denizens use when creating virtual objects. Web content could then be stored on a portable object that a user’s avatar can carry anywhere in the virtual world. “You can take it out and show it to someone without that land having to be yours,” Miller says.

Miller notes that Linden Lab is also working on allowing users to share various types of 2-D data within Second Life. A virtual whiteboard, for example, might display a document, which two users could work on at the same time. In addition, he says, the company is building a programming interface that will allow other developers to import different types of media–Flash, for example–into Second Life without any change to the virtual world’s underlying code. Miller says that companies or individuals will then have much more flexibility to use the types of media that suit their purposes within the world.

Other companies, such as Qwaq and Forterra, have also worked on integrating 2-D content into 3-D spaces, with a particular eye to business applications. Remy Malan, vice president for enterprise at Qwaq, says that the company has focused on making 3-D spaces that offer more security than Second Life does, and that require less customization from the user. Businesses can run Qwaq within their own firewalls, without having to place their data on a network that others can access.

However, Rivers Run Red’s Bovington says that Second Life tends to be the cheapest, most versatile way for a company or individual to try out Web integration. Although it has fewer security features, he says, it requires a smaller initial investment.

Miller adds that Second Life will include features that verify the integrity of content pulled in from the Web. He notes, however, that collaborating in a public space such as Second Life will always raise some security questions.

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