April 3, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
'Second Life' dreams of Electric Sheep
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The famous science fiction writer, whose short story "Do androids dream of electric sheep?" led to the movie "Blade Runner," wrote about artificial life and digital worlds. Now, Electric Sheep, a 13-employee start-up in Washington, D.C., is making a business out of creating spaces entirely in a virtual world.
The year-old company is helping big customers create a presence inside "Second Life," the popular virtual world in which people can do or build just about anything they can imagine and socialize with others anywhere in the real world.
Suffice it to say, Electric Sheep is an entirely modern concoction. And while it might seem hard to imagine that corporate types in Fortune 500 companies would ever have the vision to engage in the creation of virtual projects in an adults-only, 3D world where it's just as easy to come across like someone looking like a butterfly as someone looking like a human being, that's precisely what is starting to happen.
Last year, for example, Wells Fargo Bank wanted to build an island in "Second Life" where the bank's young customers could play and learn lessons about financial responsibility. Instead of hiring Linden Lab, publisher of "Second Life," it hired some of the virtual world's users--though not Electric Sheep.
In fact, said Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale, his company has made the decision to leave all such building projects to the "Second Life" community and focus instead on developing the infrastructure and tools that make such work possible.
That's where Electric Sheep comes in. The company, technically based in Washington D.C. but operating more often than not in the virtual world, has been booking six-figure deals from members of the Fortune 500 who want to engage their customers/communities, though Electric Sheep CEO Sibley Verbeck would not name any of the corporate clients.
Of course, it's not all corporate customers. Electric Sheep's employees can find themselves hired by a client to customize an island, or what in "Second Life" is called a "sim"--a 16-acre piece of land that users can buy and do with what they like.
Verbeck said Electric Sheep tends to charge around $15,000 for a complete customization of a sim that includes terraforming the land, constructing buildings and scripting interactivity into objects throughout the space.
One organization that has hired the company for such a purpose is the New Media Consortium, a nonprofit group consisting of 200 members, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, many other top American colleges and universities and many museums.
"We're building an experimental space in 'Second Life' to look at ways a 3D environment can be used to do real work," said Larry Johnson, CEO of the New Media Consortium, "to bring people together, to have meetings, for knowledge sharing, for learning and to do conferences."
As such, NMC contracted with Electric Sheep to take over the heavy lifting on its sim. That, said Johnson, meant that Electric Sheep "terraformed" the sim, and is constructing buildings and objects on the island and designing the overall interactive experience that visitors will get there.
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