Starting on Wednesday, representatives of companies including MTV Networks and its Nickelodeon, IBM, AOL and Disney, as well as institutions like Harvard University, the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control, will gather here for Virtual Worlds 2007, the first major conference designed specifically to promote marketing in virtual worlds to Fortune 500 companies.
"It's all about the future of marketing and media," conference organizer Chris Sherman said. "It's about finding the right partner for whatever partnership you might be looking for."
The two-day conference comes at a heady time for virtual worlds and 3D social environments. Even as the Virtual Worlds event kicks off, the Accelerating Studies Foundation is readying its formal written report from last year's --in which participants were tasked with prognosticating the look and feel of the 3D Web in 2016--and a congressional committee is nearing completion of should be regulated.
Such developments might seem absurd to those people who see virtual worlds like Second Life, There, Entropia Universe and others as little more than games. Yet the list of companies that have staked out space in these virtual frontiers is impressive: Microsoft, Warner Music, Toyota, Major League Baseball, , Bain and many others.
That's why Sherman and his colleagues at Show Initiative, which formerly ran the Austin Game Conference, have decided now is a good time for a conference where media and technology professionals can converge with developers of virtual-world platforms. More than 600 are expected to attend.
"There's critical mass now," Sherman said. "There's a number of people looking at the space; it's permeated the consciousness of Madison Avenue, as well as Silicon Valley."
Certainly, one of the main topics--how to profit from marketing in virtual worlds--has drawn its share of skeptics. Their hesitancy centers around the notion that there's no proven business model for big companies marketing in virtual worlds, and there is little, if any, demonstrated return on investment.
There's no doubt that those concerns will get a healthy hearing at the Virtual Worlds show. Yet there's also a level of enthusiasm among participants that comes from the perception that they're on the cutting edge of what could be the next great marketing canvas.
"It's not going to be the case that any one company is going to solve a bunch of these issues, and it's going to take a bunch of companies talking about it," said Corey Bridges, co-founder of, a company that has developed a platform allowing anyone to create their own online game or virtual world. "So even though it's early in the applicability of this new medium, this show, in particular, has got just a dynamite roster...It's the best of the best of this market."
Of course, Virtual Worlds is hardly the first conference devoted to immersive digital environments. Others have included, an annual event focused on the legal, social and academic aspects of virtual worlds and online games; and the , which looks at the latest design and development innovations of such environments.
But this week's event is the first real business conference devoted entirely to virtual worlds.
Keynote speakers include Jeffrey Yapp, executive vice president of MTV Networks; Colin Parris, vice president of digital convergence at IBM Research; and Matt Bostwick, senior vice president of franchise development at the MTV Networks Music Group.
Panelists, meanwhile, plan to explore such subjects as "Defining your strategy: What does ROI mean to you"; "Integrated marketing: Merging virtual activities with real-world activities; and "Virtual world applications that work."
Some regular attendees of the other gatherings say they're excited to go to a place where there's potential for witnessing change in action.
"For once, I'm actually interested in the subject matter that's going to be examined," said Mark Wallace, editor of 3pointD.com, a leading blog about virtual worlds and 3D digital environments. "The panel topics that have been chosen are a lot closer to the kinds of things that the edge thinkers in the space are looking at than they are the kind of mass-market panels you often get at broader conferences, where a lot of what's going on is audience education, and the real conference goes on in the hallways."
Wallace, whose blog is a "media partner" of the conference, said he expects to see a high level of expertise on the part of the participants. "It's almost like this has been set up to be the Davos of virtual worlds," he said.
At the actual
The conference will also be a place to see what the third-party companies developing projects in Second Life and other virtual worlds for big clients are up to. And that's what some attendees are most looking forward to.
"I'm looking to meet with the people who are in charge of levering their existing properties and taking them online," said John Donham, vice president of production at Areae. "I'm (also) interested in meeting the other developers and seeing what they're making. It's a good opportunity to spy."