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If online worlds collide, some hope for big bang of sales

IBM, Microsoft explore ways to connect Second Life, There, and other virtual spaces.

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When online role-playing games first appeared, they offered people a chance to escape the daily grind and do something different, like slaying an ogre. Then something changed: These fantasy three-dimensional games got real.

Virtual worlds like Second Life and There appeared where residents used 3-D versions of themselves to do, well, pretty much what they'd do in real life, like get ice cream or shop for clothes. Soon real-world retailers, corporate training firms, even banks opened branches in virtual worlds to market real goods and services.

There's just one problem for these virtual wannabes: They can only set up shop one world at a time. Each new virtual space means building a storefront, the equivalent of making a new Web page for every brand of Web browser.

Now, more than 20 major technology firms, including IBM and Microsoft, have agreed to explore ways to connect these worlds. The move could mainstream online 3-D commerce and, more broadly, popularize a new, more visual, way to interact online.

"We have all these different platforms, and if you invest in one you're really pretty much locked in," says Robert Bloomfield, a professor of accounting who researches virtual worlds at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Even without interoperability, some of these worlds are growing fast. Consider Second Life, one of the more popular online worlds. From August 2006 to April 2007, its population mushroomed from under 100,000 to over 6 million. Using an online currency called Linden dollars, which has a real-world exchange rate, Second Lifers can buy online "land" and clothes for their online personalities or avatars. But companies such as American Apparel, Mercedes Benz, Circuit City, and European bank ABN AMRO have set up shop there to sell real-life goods to consumers. On a recent weekday, Second Life's online commerce topped $1.2 million (real US dollars), although slowing growth of users and a glut of virtual real estate has some news organizations suggesting a looming online recession. (Reuters and Wired Magazine operate bureaus in Second Life; CNN opened theirs in November.)

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