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With Lively, Google tries its own 'Second Life'

Google's Lively project will look very familiar to those who've tried other virtual worlds, but it's got one big difference: it's part of the Internet.

Google's Lively is a Web-based project similar to Second Life. This shows a recreation of Google headquarters, complete with the T. Rex skeleton.
Google's Lively is a Web-based project similar to Second Life. This shows a re-creation of Google headquarters, complete with the T. Rex skeleton.

Update 8:17 p.m. PDT: Google amended one Lively detail: the application for MySpace is under development but not yet ready. Also, I corrected a name misspelling.

Google on Tuesday plans to unveil an online 3D social arena called Lively, the Internet giant's take on Second Life. But Google wants it to be part of your first life.

Second Life requires users to download and install a separate "client" software package that taps into the online world. Lively also requires a download and installation--Windows only for now--but then people can use Internet Explorer or Firefox to enter the virtual world.

"It's integrated with the Internet. It's not an alternate destination," said Niniane Wang, Google's engineering manager for the project. "Our intention is to add to your existing life."

Integration with the ordinary Internet takes several forms. For one thing, you can pipe in content hosted elsewhere on the Internet, including photos or videos. For another, you can embed your Lively area into your blog or, using widgets Google has written, on Facebook Web pages now and MySpace pages later. And you can e-mail your friends a normal Web address to get them to join.

With Lively, you can set up you own online spaces--rooms, grassy meadows, desert islands, or, in the demo version I tried, simulated Silicon Valley office parks. You can change the clothing or form of your avatar (that's your online incarnation, for those of you who missed the Second Life hype). And of course you can chat, do backflips, shake hands, and give high-fives.

The idea is to bring a better social dimension to online interaction, Wang said--something more sophisticated for expressing oneself than an emoticon on an instant-messenger status line.

"We think there is a desire to socialize in this way," Wang said, suggesting that's why Second Life got so much attention when it blossomed in popularity a couple years ago. "We hope this product will help them do that."

Integration with the Internet is indeed a significant departure from the Internet, but much of the Lively sales pitch will sound--how to put this politely--familiar to those who've already read virtual worlds press releases from years past.

I had a number of burps and hiccups using Lively in my demo on a somewhat elderly but by no means ancient laptop, problems Wang said weren't widespread. When it's working correctly, it took a little while to master the controls for moving the perspective and my avatar around.

After that, the novelty wore off even more rapidly than with Second Life. I'm sure it would have been more exciting with somebody else to talk to than a mock-up of Google's T. Rex skeleton, and perhaps if it were a room that I designed myself.

Don't get me wrong. I remain a believer, overall, in this form of online interaction, however socially stunted it may feel compared with, say, a singles bar. I just think the technology has a ways to go. I found Second Life more immersive, but even so, even the relatively crude communications enabled by e-mail and instant messaging did more to revolutionize my online social interactions.

A few other differences from Second Life: Lively doesn't have money. It's designed to be easier to use, with a drag-and-drop interface. And it's not programmable, at least yet, so you can only select furniture, clothes, hairstyles, and such from the prefabricated catalog Google supplies.

Money and programmability are both items the company is seriously considering, though, Wang said. A Mac OS X client also is a high priority, she added.