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Avatars Dream of Electric Sheep

The consulting firm is intent on helping them become hits in Second Life.

Starting a real-world business or expanding into a new market often requires assistance from friends, family or financiers, and the same holds true when setting up shop in Second Life.

Here's where

Electric Sheep Company can help. Electric Sheep, a virtual architectural firm that's using video-game technology in decidedly non-video-gaming ways, acts as a facilitator for businesses looking to enter the Internet world of Second Life, or SL.

"Second Life is very new, but it has the opportunity to be a major global communication and commerce platform," says Sibley Verbeck, chief executive of Electric Sheep. The company specializes in 3-D modeling and has a strong understanding of both the benefits and limitations SL has.

SL, the 3-D virtual world created by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, has become home to both individual users and big corporations. While SL members are creating a virtual version of themselves to design and sell goods in this virtual world for real money, companies are clamoring to buy up virtual space, much like the Internet boom in the 1990's.

Electric Sheep acts as a consulting group to help organizations realize their business in the virtual world. The selection of names that Verbeck's company has helped penetrate SL is short but impressive. Electric Sheep has created the virtual homesteads for

Starwood Hotels

(HOT)

,

Major League Baseball,

Nissan

(NSANY)

,

Reuters

(RTRSY)

and

TheStreet Recommends

Sony BMG

.

"To be honest, these early projects are for businesses primarily trying to get public relations or get their brand associated with something new, edgy and experimental," he says.

Verbeck believes there are different approaches for each business in terms of what each hopes to accomplish in the SL world. "

Some see this potentially going somewhere. They want to experiment and learn. It's not strictly return on investment in the short term," he says.

"After that, companies think they can get a return on investment, either through marketing or specific business models they want to pursue through Second Life," Verbeck adds.

However, one of the criticisms that Electric Sheep faces is that it is ushering larger corporations into SL, effectively cutting out individual users that are creating and building their own virtual for-sale products on a smaller scale.

The sudden migration of real world companies into SL is not unlike the same rush that big, established businesses made to the Internet just a few years ago. But in the virtual world, Electric Sheep has been vilified by critics because it has helped the household names get footholds.

"Our company is seen as one that is bringing big businesses into Second Life, which is good and bad," Verbeck explains. "Everything that is said is all quite accurate."

Sheep Island Headquarters

Verbeck goes on to say that his company is "most interested in making the Second Life platform highly successful from the point of view of users and small businesses. If it's not, this technology won't last and it won't go anywhere. We're putting a lot of effort into trying to develop tools that the user base will find really interesting and exciting."

To aid smaller businesses in SL, Electric Sheep operates

SLBoutique.com, a Web site that enables users to post their own virtual goods for sale.

Verbeck argues that globalization in the virtual realm is small-business friendly. "Of course large corporations will use this platform, but this is a way for individuals to start businesses with creativity," he says. "You don't have the entry costs or start-up costs or distribution costs. The Internet has helped flatten the world and the marketplace."

Nissan Island

Verbeck is quick to point out that many big e-commerce companies, such as

Google

(GOOG) - Get Alphabet Inc. Class C Report

and

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

were once small start-ups, so anything is possible in terms of scope.

"These companies have transformed the global economy to be more efficient," Verbeck says. "People with ideas are nimble and faster-paced. They weren't burdened by old ideas. The most creative things will come from the new folks."

In fact, Verbeck says his company just getting started in SL. "Honestly, I'm not that impressed by anything Electric Sheep has rolled out yet," Verbeck admits. "Some of the projects we've done are cool and interesting. Some of them are fun. All of the content that makes SL worth using is made by individual users, so I would humbly say we're not impressed with what we've managed to do yet."

However, Verbeck concedes that a potential stumbling block to Second Life attracting more users is the fact that it can be intimidating.

"Right now, this is interesting and getting a lot of press, but people are not going to stay unless they can intuitively understand it," Verbeck says. "I don't think we're over that bar yet, but it's a great opportunity."

Robert Holden is staff reporter Robert Holmes. He reports often from Second Life.