Ten New Business Ideas for Emerging Worlds

Everybody knows about the big three of virtual business: sex, gambling, and role-playing. But with the new OpenSim platform and hyperlinks between different virtual worlds, the three-dimension Internet is about to explode as a serious platform. Here are a few ways to take advantage of it.

Avatar Homes

In Second Life, and World of Warcraft, avatars — the little animated characters that people in habit in the virtual worlds — live right where they play. This means, for example, that Second Life keeps track of avatar appearance and belongings.

But as avatars start moving around between worlds (and they already do), then there’s an opportunity for third-parties to create grids where avatars can get free homes – the same way that people can now get free personal pages on MySpace or free email accounts on Hotmail. In fact, the home should have a mailbox —  and maybe a video phone.

(A residential community on Grid4us -- home to 119 residents.)

(A residential community on Grid4us -- home to 119 residents.)

I can imagine little villages — small apartment buildings full of free apartments surrounding village squares filled with quaint little shops, bars and other neighborhood gathering places. Residents can sort through their closets to try on clothes, then go outside and shop, play or wander around the grounds. If they need to go somewhere else for business or research or visit friends, they simply teleport to their destination.

Potential revenue sources: “Premium” memberships that allow for, say, penthouse apartments or extra-large suites. Fees on in-world transactions or on currency conversions. Rent paid by vendors and advertisers.

Hypergrid Directory

Before there was Google, there was Yahoo! — a list of websites, organized by humans into useful categories. No such list currently exists for the new virtual worlds, mainly because you couldn’t go from one world to another. It doesn’t make much sense to have a directory if in order to go to any particular location, you have to download new software, create a new account… but today, with the hypergrid connections up between different destinations in the OpenSim-compatible universe, there’s an opportunity — and a need — for such a directory.

If the directory is located in OpenSim, it will take a bit of creativity to organize it in an appealing, three-dimensional way. In addition, the directory can be its own destination – or an object (such as a “Guide to the Galaxy”) the can be either physically embedded in other locations or carried by users. For example, the Google search page exists as a stand-alone page, as a widget that can be added to websites, or as a plugin for the browser toolbar.

Potential revenue sources: Advertising, “premium” listings on its website. If the directory has an OpenSim presence, there are also opportunities to charge rent for nearby locations.

Hypergrid Search

After Yahoo!, there was Google — which, instead of organizing destinations by category, sorts them by the number of incoming links. As the number of grids increases, and the hypergrid “Stargate” connections promulgate, there will be an opportunity for this kind of search engine.

Like the directory above — and like current Web search engines — this can be a stand-alone location, embedded into other locations, or carried by travellers as they go from grid to grid.

Potential revenue sources: See “Hypergrid Directory” above.

Community Destinations

Second Life promises to be all things to all people. That doesn’t mean that they’re the best at any particular thing, however. For example, if I’m a member of a particular role-playing community, I might not necessarily want to share my world with the the general public, with business users, and with random passers-by. By building my own virtual domain, I will reduce costs — OpenSim land is significantly less expensive than SecondLife land — and tailor the environment specifically to my users. And this doesn’t just apply to gaming communities. For example, one independent film company is currently evaluating the possibility of creating a grid to show independent films, where audience members can meet people who participated in the film’s production, or simply share the experience of watching a film together, and then discuss it in nearby bars or cafes. A permanent, virtual Cannes Film Festival, so to speak.

Potential revenue sources: Membership fees, tickets, sale of community-specific items such as game costumes and weapons, land rentals to related businesses.

Hosting

Businesses, groups, and individuals looking to establish their own grids may be fortunate enough to have access to dedicated servers and the people to run them. Many will not — or, even if they do, would rather outsource this function, the same way they currently outsource webhosting.

Revenue sources: There are already several companies that provide hosting for OpenSim destinations. Some charge flat fees, based on land area, and cap out at a fixed amount of users. Prices are currently around $10 to $25 per month for four square acres on an established grid, $40 to $80 for sixteen square acres, and $300 a month and up for a separate grid.

Design & Development

It is possible to train in-house staff to create content for virtual worlds, or to hire people who already know how to do it. The tools for content creation in OpenSim are the same as those in SecondLife, so there is already a large pool of trained people. Content includes buildings and furnishings, tools and clothing expected to be used or worn by visitors, and in-world applications running from the very simple — a door that opens or closes when you touch it — to very complex e-commerce systems. For a robust and compelling virtual world a variety of development skills is needed, as well as artistic skills, usability experience, marketing and traffic flow expertise, and other skills. In addition, the world must have compelling text and photography as well. Some of all of these functions may be outsourced to an outside firm.

Revenue sources: Design and development firms typically charge by the hour, with prices ranging from $8 per hour for a student (I can recommend one) to $1,000 per day and up.

E-Commerce

Today, SecondLife business is dominated by small one-man boutiques. Or one-woman boutiques. There is yet no equivalent of Amazon or eBay — possibly because, in SecondLife, companies cannot fully control the user experience and payment methods. With OpenSim, an e-commerce company can create its own virtual world, handle its own payments, and fully control the shopping experience of its visitors.

Revenue sources: Either direct sales revenues or sales commissions.

User Hardware

Having spent the last couple of weeks attending online conferences and meetings, I have realized that my computer screen is too small. My processor is too slow. And my Internet connection could be much, much faster. This is a big change from last month, when I was eyeing the new netbooks and thinking, “All I ever use my computer for is to go on the Internet. This is good enough.” Three-dimensional worlds can stop or reverse the move towards low-cost computers. The virtual worlds also require good sound systems, to better hear colleagues at business meetings, speakers at conferences — and the music in dance clubs. And I, personally, would love to have a user interface that allows me to get up from my chair and move around — and have my avatar character duplicate those movements in the real world. The Wii has shown that there’s a market for this.  But don’t stop at an interfact that senses movement! The folks at Honda have developed an interface that reads thoughts. Oooh. I’d want one — but it looks really ugly.

Revenue sources: Sales revenues, as well as per-hour setup or customization fees.

User Interfaces and Controls

Say you’ve got a factory, with a hundred different machines and sensors. You can display the read-outs from the sensors in table form. This is difficult for a human to read and absorb – easy to miss important information. You can display the readouts as graphs and dials, which makes it easier for people to track important events. Now, you can copy the factory floor into a virtual environment and display a problem with a machine with, say, flashing red lights above the machine. Or you could turn off the lights for a room by walking over and flipping a switch — instead of looking for “lights” in the control menu. There are already some companies doing this, such as the SHASPA Home Energy Organizer., which uses the OpenSim platform to create a three-dimension model to help people monitor their home energy use. I’m going to call this the “object user interface” — as opposed to the “graphical user interface” we have now — and see if it catches on.

Revenue sources: Hardware and software sales, hourly consulting fees, embedded software licensing fees or individual subscriptions.

Content

The creation of every new medium is a transformative event. Radio and television transformed the way that drama was delivered — from the stage to the radio play and then to the television program — and transformed the nature of drama in the process. There was a similar effect on news content, and this transformation took place again when the Internet came along. New types of content were made possible, and the new delivery channel affected the economics of existing industries. The three-dimensional web will have a similar transformative effect — but what effect that will be is too early to say. Sure, you can duplicate traditional media in a virtual world, the same way that newspapers tried to duplicate themselves online. You can put a television screen inside a virtual house, just as you can put a video player on a webpage. But you can also do more. The Internet allowed for the possiblity of Napster, of YouTube, of Hulu.com, and of Google News.

Many content providers are already making money in virtual worlds. World of Warcraft is a very rich, dynamic three-dimensional virtual world. The OpenSim platform will make such worlds easier to create, and easier to access.

And I can’t even imagine the new kinds of content that might be created and sold. Okay, I can. Here are some of my ideas: avatars based on movie characters (as the graphics gets better, these will look more and more realistic — I could become Angelina Jolie). Voice modulating software to make you sound — even sing — like your favorite celebrity. Or how about this — apologizing services. I hate apologizing. I’m sure most people do, too. Wouldn’t it be nice to hire an expert to inhabit your virtual self and go apologize to the people you’ve wronged?

Revenue sources: Single-item purchases, subscriptions, advertising, and licensing are the traditional ways of selling content.

[Update: You can browse all hypergrid-enabled public OpenSim grids with Hyperica, the directory of hypergrid destinations. Directory indexes more than 100 shopping and freebie store locations. Updated hypergrid travel directions here.]

maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.