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'Second Life' makes an All-Star pitch

With a virtual-world simulcast of the event's home run derby, Major League Baseball thinks it hit one out of the park. Images: 'Second Life' home run

For a handful of people Monday night, the home run derby at baseball's annual All-Star Game was an experiment in watching a live, real-world event from inside the virtual world "Second Life."

For months, a company called Electric Sheep has been undertaking large projects inside "Second Life" for corporate clients and many others.

Past corporate visitors to the virtual world have included Coca-Cola and Wells Fargo.

'Second Life' ballpark

But the simulcast of the home run derby, in which participants gathered in a brand-new digital baseball stadium and watched a (nearly) live feed of the competition on a series of video screens, was one of the most high-profile projects to surface publicly.

To the media executives at Major League Baseball, the experiment was an opportunity to bring its sporting brand into one of the hottest online environments around.

"We're really interested in the ('Second Life') platform," said Justin Schaffer, senior vice president of new media at Major League Baseball Advanced Media. "When the Electric Sheep guys approached us, we were initially skeptical of the technology. But once we got into it, it seemed like a tremendous tool to build community."

Sibley Verbeck, CEO of Electric Sheep, said he thought a partnership with Major League Baseball was a natural fit because tens of thousands of people are already experiencing baseball online through broadcasts of games and through online chat.

" has expanded the experience from just streaming video online to include chat rooms (with) about 20 people each, and they want to go in with friends or people who smack talk like they do," said Verbeck. "And that's a form of collaborative experience. We can provide 100 percent of that experience--video and chat--and in addition we can provide so much more, a true sense of play, sharing space with people and interactive video."

For now, it's not clear what baseball's next foray into "Second Life" will be. And that's due, in part, to two dynamics surrounding the virtual world.

First, it currently boasts around 321,000 "residents," or users, a respectable number for a virtual world, but small when compared to how many baseball fans there are.

"We drive such a tremendous amount of traffic," said Schaffer. "If I put all those people in 'Second Life' to watch a game right now, we'd probably take (it) down."

That may or may not be the case, since all "Second Life" users must register, and its publisher, Linden Lab, is adding new servers to meet demand. But Linden Lab has yet to deal with a mass influx of people, and it's not clear how the company would handle that.

The second issue, Schaffer said, has to do with baseball's desire to appeal to a family audience.

"It's a sensitive issue," he said, given "some of the attention 'Second Life' has gotten around some of its adult-oriented content."

Indeed, "Second Life" is an adults-only environment that contains a high degree of adult content, and it's easy to understand why Major League Baseball would want to be careful how its family-oriented brand is associated with the virtual world.

Still, it's probable that all the parties involved can come to a solution, and it's clear that baseball is interested in pursuing further opportunities with "Second Life." The home run derby was an experiment to see just how well the baseball and virtual world folks could put something on.

"I think you'll see us doing something else with them before the postseason," said Schaffer. The home run derby simulcast "was much more well-received than I would have thought."