August 14, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

'Second Life' gets first look at new hotel chain

Avatars looking for a stylish place to mingle and get a cocktail will soon be able to check out a trendy new hotel--months before their fleshy counterparts.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, which oversees such well-known hotel brands as Sheraton, St. Regis and Westin, will launch its newest chain, Aloft, in the online society "Second Life" in September.

In the brick-and-mortar realm, the plan is for the first Aloft inn to open sometime in 2008, catering to active, urban 30- to 50-year-olds. But the real-world lodge will be preceded by a 3D cyberversion designed to prompt feedback from virtual guests and help guide the earthbound endeavor.

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"We think the SL world is a specific community of early adopters, of tech-savvy people who like to voice their opinions," said Brian McGuinness, vice president of the Aloft Hotels brand.

Aloft will be the first hotel for "Second Life," which has already incorporated businesses from Wells Fargo to Major League Baseball. Marc Schiller, CEO and founder of ElectricArtists 2.0, a marketing services company, approached Starwood two months ago with the idea of a virtual debut for Aloft. Starwood then purchased an island in "Second Life," and construction began on the hotel a month ago.

"We're hoping we can learn a lot about where (Second Lifers) congregate and how they use space in a communal way," Schiller said. "That could be valuable as Starwood develops the hotel."

The development is a collaboration involving brainstorming sessions, weekly conference calls and the e-mailing of images back and forth between Starwood, ElectricArtists and The Electric Sheep Company, the 3D-design company ElectricArtists chose to build the cyberversion of the Aloft.

Interested parties, real and avatar, can get an early glimpse of the cyberinn at the virtualaloft blog. Electric Sheep is maintaining the blog to track progress and provide a glimpse into the digital construction process of scripting and graphics.

"We thought it would be fun, frankly, just exposing what this is," said Giff Constable, vice president of business development at Electric Sheep. "There's a lot of curiosity (about) SL and what it is and how it's different from a game and different from the Internet and what it all means."

Flying dragons, pink teddy bears, big bucks
"Second Life" is an open-ended virtual world in which players can create or do just about anything they can imagine. Opened to the public in 2003, it features a mainland composed of an array of square, 16-acre plots. The so-called metaverse is free to play in, but users must pay monthly fees if they want to own land. Its publisher, Linden Lab, makes money from land-usage fees, as well as player purchases of the "Second Life" currency, the Lindendollar, which is used to purchase property and other goods. The virtual marketplace supports millions of U.S. dollars in monthly transactions.

Because "Second Life" is open-ended, its users have built any number of fantastic creations, from Wild West neighborhoods to surreal landscapes that float in the sky. Anyone strolling through the metaverse is as likely to encounter avatars made up to look like flying dragons or pink teddy bears as they are to meet more normal-looking characters.

One of the most intriguing elements of "Second Life" is its bustling economy. Linden Lab is one of the few companies that grants its users full intellectual-property rights to their creations, and that's engendered a robust marketplace in any number of virtual goods, including land, clothing, vehicles, magic wands and more.

CONTINUED: Real money on the virtual table…
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