From TechCrunch comes a rumor that probably has the crew at Linden Lab -- and the creators of other social virtual worlds -- looking nervously over their shoulders: Google -- or some other "major Internet company" -- is preparing to launch some sort of virtual world at the end of this year.
Testing on the product, which TechCrunch suggests is based upon Google Earth, is taking place at Arizona State University. The evidence is intriguing. An Arizona State University student posted a comment on a MacRumors forum, claiming that this weekend he/she was prompted to take part in a beta test of a software product that seems to involve social networking, avatars, and 3D modeling. The screenshots of the questionnaire show text that reads:
Redefine your world
What's all this about? ASU has been uniquely chosen by a major Internet company to be a beta-tester school for a new product that will be publicly launched later this year. This is a truly unique opportunity for you to test drive the software and provide feedback, which will be used to continuously refine the product before its launch. ASU is the only school picked to participate in this collaborative development process.
Below the text is an avatar with a speech bubble that says "Are you into 3D modeling, videogaming, etc.? Do you have a virtual avatar? If so, click here!" Then the survey starts with a question asking about text-based social networks, including MySpace, Facebook, and Friendster.
Besides the strong existing ties between Arizona State University and Google, what else suggests Google might be interested in starting a virtual world? In my view, it's the suite of 3D products that Google already has in its arsenal. Google Earth is already a hit, but the company has also been developing -- or buying up -- other technologies which could be critical to launching a virtual world. For instance, over the summer I commented that Google's purchase of 3D modelling tool SketchUp was a good strategic move, if you believe in the potential of the 3D Web. I didn't make the connection with social virtual worlds, but if the ASU experiment is indeed being driven by Google, I would expect SketchUp to be the tool that users can employ to develop 3D objects.
Of course, most Google services have business plans attached to them. What would Google do to generate revenue in a virtual world? AdSense for 3D worlds? Letting avatars "own" and develop virtual territory corresponding with real-world property or places?
Hmmm, my own mansion in Manhattan -- I kind of like the sound of that!
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