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Pay 'real' cash for a great virtual life
Abhilasha Ojha in New Delhi | January 20, 2007
As Abhilasha Oskan, my virtual avatar on Secondlife.com, I am in the process of exploring exactly such a world - one that was founded by 28-year-old Philip Rosedale after he was inspired by the concept of "metaverse" (a phrase coined by Stephenson in Snow Crash for a virtual reality-based Internet).
Rosedale, whose San Francisco-based company Linden Labs governs Secondlife.com, started this virtual world in 2003 with the vision that this world will be the future of the Internet.
Spread over 20,000 acres of land (it has grown from the mere 64 acres in 2003), I exist in this digital continent as a girl clad in a purple tee and jeans with long black hair and a dusky complexion.
At any given time, there are easily around 13,550 members who log on to Secondlife.com to shop, network, buy and sell land, build proverbial castles in the air and work to become successful businessmen or businesswomen. Of course, there is an equally large number of second lifers who indulge their libidinous fantasies, virtually of course.
So what is the big deal about Second Life? Or better still, what is Second Life? To quote its official website, "It is a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents and inhabited by people from around the globe."
As Oskan, I wander around in this space that houses nightclubs, eating joints, coffee shops, clinics, malls, offices and a host of nude beaches and free sex islands. There are highways, streets, roads and vast stretches of open land where, if I have enough Linden$ (Second Life's currency), I can build my own home with the help of architects, decorate it with artwork (there are auction houses here), artifacts and cosy sofa sets, invite friends and host a party complete with food, wine and champagne.
As one of the many novices of the virtual world - and a severely tech-challenged person in real life - I am quickly "teleported" to what is called an "orientation island" where I find myself with other new inhabitants.
Unfortunately, I find myself drowning in an ocean and after a lot of trial-and-error, find myself in a nightclub where I meet Dirk Kilby, a bare-chested, tattooed, good-looking man. Dirk, on learning that I'm Indian in real life, offers to teleport me to Isle of Extasia, and soon we are talking about Second Life. For the record, I am served champagne that I click to accept.
Dirk is actually Anirban Sen, creative director, McCann-Erickson, based in New Delhi. He became Dirk almost five months ago on Second Life and has since then done odd jobs in the virtual world, including that of a bouncer at a party ("people can get scared because of my muscular image") and being a slave to someone for a few days.
"I was paid for doing work and through that money I got myself a new look, including my tattoos," he shows off. Incidentally, he's not alone on Second Life and has seven other real-life McCann Erickson creative directors, including Prasoon Joshi, executive chairman, McCann Erickson (India), who is busy writing editorials for Indian publications on the entire culture of Second Life.
As Dadur Turk, Joshi on Second Life.com, is already the owner of virtual land worth 16,000 sq mt on Tranquillity Bay ("I paid $400 to buy land on this space and have already sold quite a bit of it too") and formed a club where creative directors from McCann Erickson discussed projects.
Joshi elaborates, "We received complaints from Second Life neighbours and now I want to sell this land." It's scary, the seriousness with which Joshi talks about Second Life, even as he insists he's not really hooked on to it.
For someone who read about Second Life and became an inhabitant nearly six months ago, Joshi spends no more than 4-5 hours in a week ("I don't have too much time") but thinks of this world as a fascinating space where he can shop (he already has a huge collection of shoes and clothes), rent fancy apartments, go scuba-diving, enjoy balloon rides, attend musical concerts and play the piano.
And though the business of buying and selling land is thriving here, Joshi admits that the dark side of the virtual world includes widespread prostitution and uninhibited sex.
It's this last part that Zeus Zetkin stays away from completely. As far as he is concerned, Zetkin is here for pure business reasons. Smartly dressed in a formal suit, Zetkin teleports me to his virtual office.
While he has partnered with Mexican and Denmark-based companies for these business ventures, he also has interests in the skin business, which, he says, "is huge".
Denizen Zetkin unmasks his virtual image to emerge as a regular, 26-year-old Mumbai-based guy. Siddharth Banerjee in real life, he bid adieu to a potential career as a chartered accountant to get involved full-time in Second Life. Banerjee has been enjoying this virtual world over the last six months and admits to have gotten bored the first time. "I logged off within the first two hours," he says.
What got him hooked on was the flourishing economy of Second Life. "LindeX may be a virtual currency exchange but for all practical purposes it has value attached to it and don't forget it is valued against the US dollar."
He explains that members of Second Life can start a virtual account by giving "real" credit card details. Here, the "real" currency (US $ in this case) gets converted into Linden dollars (currently $1 equals 268 Linden dollars) and with this money one can buy all the virtual things on sale in Secondlife.com.
But why would anyone pay real money for a virtual currency? "Because for virtual currency to be available, one invariably needs to pump in real currency on Secondlife.com," explains Bannerjee, who says that his online businesses can be classified as dotcom businesses that are held by his "real life" company called Indusgeeks Solutions (which is currently undergoing the registration process).
Indusgeeks Solutions (for which he has tied up with his online partners and is also receiving venture capital funding) has seen investments worth Rs 50 lakh and will concentrate on content and software development for metaverse models like Second Life.
"We are trying to bring in ad agencies like WPP and corporate firms to start their offices on Secondlife.com," says Banerjee, adding that corporates are fast realising that virtual spaces like Secondlife.com are good advertising platforms.
"We have tie-ups with Cenitdesign of Mexico and Comunicattore of Italy for our plans and though we are talking virtual space, all the monetary transactions are taking place in "real" currency through banks like any standard outsourcing/development contract," he adds.
Banerjee, who spends close to 14-15 hours on Second Life-related work everyday and logs on for 4-5 hours on a daily basis, has also started Bollywood Masala, a forum on Indian films and music on Second Life.
Though there are other futuristic sites like www.worldofwarcraft.com, www.there.com, www.metaverse.sourceforge.net and www.activeworlds.com.
Secondlife.com, says educational technologist, Preetam Rai, with its multi-platform abilities and PR skills, has been able to attract more people, educational institutions and real corporates. He's right. While companies IBM and Nissan have already acquired space on this virtual land, others like Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Intel and Adidas are also part of this futuristic model. Adidas, in fact, did a marketing campaign on Secondlife.com for one of its products, while Toyota sold virtual cars.
Zetkin's conference room shows a screen on which Reuters press agency puts out news updates and shows the day's value of Linden$. Literary agent Greene & Heaton have opened an office to search for new talent, while an author even promoted his book on the virtual world.
Music group Duran Duran may also host a concert on this virtual space sometime soon. Chennai-based S Balaji, who is an IT entrepreneur in real life, conducted an environmental exercise called Project Green Hands and planted virtual trees on this space.
While an event was being conducted online, in reality S Balaji and his team were planting real trees in Tamil Nadu. "I am encouraging people to join Secondlife.com. There's an e-commerce model there and one of my clients has turned dress designer here too," he adds.
Just when one thinks of the myriad possibilities on this virtual world, Neeru Kanwar, a Delhi-based psychotherapist reiterates that virtual worlds like Secondlife.com are actually lonely planets.
"It's a sad commentary and I'd look at some aspects of virtual worlds negatively. Of course, individuals' suppressed desires are coming out but at the end of the day nothing is true."
Her explanation is perfect for a case study that Joshi reveals where a girl said that she was seven weeks pregnant. Only, in this case, she perhaps paid up to get "virtually" pregnant. Another denizen whom he met at one of the virtual shopping malls cradled a baby in his arms.
Joshi admits to hearing fleeting reports of marriages and divorces that are taking place on this virtual planet. Financial Times recently reported that an American lawyer and virtual real-estate speculator on Second Life filed a lawsuit against Linden Lab for confiscating some of his virtual property.
As Oskan, the virtual world, I find, is intimidating. The maps are fairly complicated, the continent and its graphics unsettling. Snow Crash, the inspiration behind Second Life, is a novel with a chaotic structure.
Somewhere, Secondlife.com is like that; with a myriad possibilities and opportunities but an equal number of complications as well. And while life in the real world is not all that easy, it looks like an increasing number of world citizens are finding it easier to cocoon themselves in this virtual world as denizens of Secondlife.com.
The Money On Secondlife.Com
Siddharth Banerjee aka Zeus Zetkin explains: "Basically it is the 'value' of a thing that determines its price. In this case, virtual land or virtual clothes are 'valuables' in the minds of people who use them. It is difficult to answer why people exchange the currency. It's what people value and that, as we all know, is not quantifiable, it's qualitative."
How it works:
"I like a virtual handbag, for instance, and I want my avataar to have it. I pay the shopkeeper through a payment system, in Linden dollars, to buy it. If I don't have any Linden dollars, where do I get some? I link up my 'real' life credit card to my avataar account, just like one would work on other e-commerce sites such as Ebay.com.
The money gets debited from the 'real' credit card and gets converted to Linden dollars at the prevailing 'exchange rate' valued against the real US dollars. Hence, the 'real money' economy is connected to Second Life economy through the Linden Exchange or LindeX."
How is the exchange rate determined?
"Like in any stock or forex market, depending upon how the 'economy' of Second Life functions (economy figures and statistics are always available on the Secondlife.com website), traders and buyers (working in Linden Lab, the company behind Secondlife.com, besides a select number of online traders) take a call on whether the Linden dollar will go up or down against the US dollar.
It is speculation based on economic data, as in any forex or capital market. This obviously changes day-to-day and minute-to-minute, as in the case of any other foreign currency exchange.
So, in effect, if I have a land business in Second Life, I value my plot at Linden$10,000. You want to buy it. So you buy L$ 10,000 from the LindeX through Linden Labs, your credit card account gets debited by the dollar value of the amount. In this case it will be approximately US$ 37 ( at the current exchange rate of approximately L$ 268 to US $1).
Then this US $37 is converted into Indian rupees by your credit card company. So, say, it works out to approximately Rs 45 to US $1. Then basically your credit card gets charged by Rs 1,665! You have paid 'real' money to buy this land.
I receive the amount in Linden dollars and I go to the LindeX and sell my L$ 10,000 at the same exchange rate, pay 3.5 per cent transaction charge to Linden Labs and then convert it to US dollars.
Linden Labs will then send me a cheque (remember, you need US $150 as minimum balance for them to transfer the money) and I'll deposit the cheque in my bank account and it will get converted into Indian rupees. So that's how I get the 'real' money for the business.
Other Virtual Worlds
Another metaverse created for youngsters who are between 13-17 years old. The promoters say that this site is stringently monitored by Linden Lab staff.