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Google eyeing its own 'Second Life?'

A report says the search giant is testing a virtual world at Arizona State University.

For some time now, we here at CNET have been hearing whispers that Google might be looking to get into the virtual world space, particularly in light of the increasing interest of existing environments like Second Life, and the success of Google Earth and the search giant's purchase of the Sketchup technology.

Well, now we might finally be on to something. According to TechCrunch, Google may already be testing its own 3D virtual world technology, in a secret experiment at Arizona State University.

And according to a report published Monday from eMarketer, Google is "planning enhancements to Google Earth to let users connect virtually with one another."

To be sure, there's no doubt that Google has the resources, especially with Sketchup and Google Earth, to build a vast and powerful 3D virtual world. To many, they're very likely the only ones who could ramp up such an operation and quickly make it successful.

But the key to a really vital virtual world is user-created content. And while users of services like Sketchup could easily import huge amounts of precreated 3D content into a Google-run virtual world, it wouldn't be the kind of new, emergent content that populates Second Life and, to a lesser extent, There.

What that means is that a Google virtual world would still take a long time to have the wide variety and total diversity that it would need to catch the popular imagination. Of course, it would almost certainly have a technological superiority to the shaky Second Life platform, and that could go a long way to bringing in mass numbers of users. But, it would not be an overnight thing.

If it's even happening. And with rumors being what they are, you never know.

A Google spokesman offered this comment: "We're always looking for new ways to help our users connect with each other, share information, and express themselves, but we don't have any new details to share at this time."

The report follows on the heels late last week of a TechCrunch blog item saying that Google will announce a set of APIs on November 5 that will allow developers to "leverage Google's social graph data. They'll start with Orkut and iGoogle (Google's personalized home page), and expand from there to include Gmail, Google Talk and other Google services over time."

The move is designed, according to TechCrunch's anonymous sources, to address the "Facebook issue."