'Second Life' dreams of Electric Sheep

A tiny start-up is helping big companies make their mark on the virtual world. Photos: Lighting up worlds

Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
5 min read
Phillip K. Dick would be proud of Electric Sheep Co.

The famous science fiction writer, whose short story "Do androids dream of electric sheep?" led to the movie "Blade Runner," wrote about artificial life and digital worlds. Now, Electric Sheep, a 13-employee start-up in Washington, D.C., is making a business out of creating spaces entirely in a virtual world.

The year-old company is helping big customers create a presence inside "Second Life," the popular virtual world in which people can do or build just about anything they can imagine and socialize with others anywhere in the real world.

Electric sheep creations

Suffice it to say, Electric Sheep is an entirely modern concoction. And while it might seem hard to imagine that corporate types in Fortune 500 companies would ever have the vision to engage in the creation of virtual projects in an adults-only, 3D world where it's just as easy to come across like someone looking like a butterfly as someone looking like a human being, that's precisely what is starting to happen.

Last year, for example, Wells Fargo Bank wanted to build an island in "Second Life" where the bank's young customers could play and learn lessons about financial responsibility. Instead of hiring Linden Lab, publisher of "Second Life," it hired some of the virtual world's users--though not Electric Sheep.

In fact, said Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale, his company has made the decision to leave all such building projects to the "Second Life" community and focus instead on developing the infrastructure and tools that make such work possible.

That's where Electric Sheep comes in. The company, technically based in Washington D.C. but operating more often than not in the virtual world, has been booking six-figure deals from members of the Fortune 500 who want to engage their customers/communities, though Electric Sheep CEO Sibley Verbeck would not name any of the corporate clients.

Of course, it's not all corporate customers. Electric Sheep's employees can find themselves hired by a client to customize an island, or what in "Second Life" is called a "sim"--a 16-acre piece of land that users can buy and do with what they like.

Verbeck said Electric Sheep tends to charge around $15,000 for a complete customization of a sim that includes terraforming the land, constructing buildings and scripting interactivity into objects throughout the space.

One organization that has hired the company for such a purpose is the New Media Consortium, a nonprofit group consisting of 200 members, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, many other top American colleges and universities and many museums.

"We're building an experimental space in 'Second Life' to look at ways a 3D environment can be used to do real work," said Larry Johnson, CEO of the New Media Consortium, "to bring people together, to have meetings, for knowledge sharing, for learning and to do conferences."

As such, NMC contracted with Electric Sheep to take over the heavy lifting on its sim. That, said Johnson, meant that Electric Sheep "terraformed" the sim, and is constructing buildings and objects on the island and designing the overall interactive experience that visitors will get there.

It's "meant to entice the visitor because it's very, very beautiful," said Johnson, "so (Electric Sheep) has done a tremendous job of building something very, very rich."

Johnson said that working with Electric Sheep--which had won out in a competition for the NMC contract against other "Second Life" developers--has been a new kind of experience, especially for a 55-year-old man who isn't used to playing around in futuristic virtual environments.

"Our home base is Sheep Island in 'Second Life.' We meet up in our sheep tower. That's our place."
-- Jerry Paffendorf, Electric Sheep project director

"For me, the most interesting thing was that...much of our interactions (with Electric Sheep) took place in 'Second Life,' avatar to avatar," said Johnson. "The social aspects of 'Second Life' were a very interesting part of the project for me because a lot of this took place in that world, even though it was a real-world contract between two companies."

In fact, because Electric Sheep's employees are spread out geographically, its functional work space is a building in "Second Life."

"We're a virtual company," said Jerry Paffendorf, Electric Sheep's project director. "We're spatially distributed. Our home base is Sheep Island in 'Second Life.' We meet up in our sheep tower. That's our place."

Meanwhile, in addition to working for Fortune 500 companies and institutions like NMC, Electric Sheep has worked on several other projects, including Jibun Life, which is a "Second Life" teens-only environment that connects classrooms and youth groups around the world in an immersive, 3D environment. The company has also worked on SLE-CERT, a Dartmouth College program designed to give first-responders in Hanover, N.H., a way to practice dealing with urban emergencies.

And of course, not everyone looking to hire someone for project work in "Second Life" contracts with Electric Sheep.

A Boston company called Vivox, which is developing a VoIP system that can be implemented in virtual worlds, hired a developer called Home Depoz to build it a British-style phone booth complete with a phone that can be used to dial any real number in the world.

"We have no artistic talent ourselves whatsoever," said Monty Sharma, Vivox's vice president of marketing. "You want somebody who's actually a 3D artist and, second, somebody who's familiar with the modeling tools in 'Second Life' and the behaviors needed to make things happen."

Linden Lab is often involved in connecting clients with developers. But Paffendorf explained that while Electric Sheep is currently doing some work for Linden Lab, it is totally independent from the "Second Life" publisher.

And that's just how Linden Lab wants it, even if the success of outfits like Electric Sheep means that the cost of engineers and developers versed in "Second Life" building and modeling skills goes up.

"I love them," Linden Lab's Rosedale said of Electric Sheep. "They're deadly, and they're hiring the best developers...We're competing with them to hire some of the same people. They may end up increasing the salaries of everybody working in 'Second Life.' But I'm so happy to have that competition."