'Second Life' gets first look at new hotel chain

Starwood Hotels will seek feedback on new chain via a cyberlodge in the virtual world. Images: Hotel habitat

Gaming
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.

For Linden Lab, the Aloft news came as a bit of a surprise. But Philip Rosedale, Linden's CEO, said that's precisely the point of handing over the "Second Life" content-creation reins to its users.

"Because of the promise that SL holds for people as just generally a place for human exploration for design and commerce and expression, there are a lot more people who can contribute to it at the level of engineering and design than could ever work for us," Rosedale said. "It's less common these days that I know about them until I read the press releases, and that's good."

"It's one thing to go to a Web site and look at some pictures of a design, but its another thing to be able to walk into a space, immerse yourself in the space, and then to walk into it with a friend and have a debate and talk about what works and what doesn't work."
--Giff Constable, VP,
Electric Sheep

Of course, "Second Life" is not the only virtual world with a strong economy. Others, like "EverQuest," "Ultima Online" and "World of Warcraft" have hundreds of thousands, or millions, of players buying and selling clothing, weapons, vehicles and the like, and it's been estimated that the total market for virtual goods is as high as $880 million a year.

One question that's come up is whether these items are taxable. Certainly, players are legally required to report profits on the sale of such goods, though few do. But a more interesting question--one that has yet to be officially answered--is whether taxes can be levied on unsold goods traded between players, which clearly have real monetary value.

And all that activity--social, financial and otherwise--has outsiders eager to get in on the action.

Real-world companies such as Starwood, Coca-Cola and Wells Fargo are just some of the businesses that have set up shop in "Second Life." American Apparel has gotten into the act, becoming the first retail chain to go virtual, with an online outlet opening last June.

In the last week, Text 100, a public relations agency that ranked ninth last year among the top 50 tech consultancies in PR Week Magazine, joined the growing array of "Second Life" businesses.

And in July, Major League Baseball stepped to the "Second Life" plate, with an event on the virtual Baseball Island tied to its All-Star game. Second Lifers had the opportunity to catch this year's home-run derby as it was simulated in the lush, green grass of the fantasy stadium. Live television coverage of the real-life event was presented on digital Jumbotrons around the perimeter of the field. Virtual fans ate hot dogs and cheered on the bobble-headed avatars representing each of the eight contestants.

The growing interest in turn has resulted in a blossoming business for third-party design firms like The Electric Sheep and a competitor, Millions of Us. Such designers can earn hefty real-world fees for their commissions. Among other things, they deal with the scripting tools required to create complex "Second Life" artifacts, which are notoriously difficult to use.

Still, the principals say they don't want to bite off more than they can chew.

"Some people have talked about bringing in a fast-food company," Electric Sheep's Constable said. "But that doesn't make much sense." Any food that appears in the virtual world is purely ornamental, he said, because avatars don't need to eat. On the other hand, he said, a hotel in a land of sleepless avatars makes perfect sense.

"This isn't about taking something from reality and turning it all into a virtual world," he said. "It's about taking key elements and about getting feedback."

Virtual vacancy
As September draws nearer, the collaborative talks have begun focusing on Aloft-hosted activities. The developers envision turning Aloft into , parties and events where active digital folk can freely congregate, flirt and then later retreat into hotel rooms with friends.

This is part of their plan to turn a digital hotel into a profitable venture and to get the early feedback that will make their earthly hotel profitable too.

So far, what's been completed in the Starwood project is the outer shell of the modern, angular, five-story hotel, which is located on Aloft Island's tropical beachfront property. It was built based on a single exterior rendering provided by Starwood.

"We're trying to make the hotel as close as possible to the actual hotel, but the environment will be different," Constable said.

Surrounding the hotel is a walkway, a marina and a bridge that connects to the mainland, making it more accessible to the roughly 390,000 residents of "Second Life."

Constable said the lobbies of other Starwood hotels begin the day for weary travelers by offering them a place to grab a coffee and croissant. At night, they're transformed into cozy little bars with mood lighting and music, inviting people to stop in and stay.

This same format will be integrated into the new Aloft.

"That's the power of the platform," he said. "It's one thing to go to a Web site and look at some pictures of a design, but its another thing to be able to walk into a space, immerse yourself in the space, and then to walk into it with a friend and have a debate and talk about what works and what doesn't work."

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