STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, some businesses think their quarterly results may be eventually be affected by the sales they make in an imaginary world. It's a computer simulation called Second Life. People buy real estate, they build houses and stores, and then they move about in this make-believe world.
Their alter egos on screen are called avatars are sometimes designed to resemble their real-life creators. This becomes of interest to business because you spend real American dollars to acquire fake money, which your avatar then spends on products like clothing and cars.
For our Monday focus on business and technology, we call Reuben Steiger, who helps companies work in this space. He runs a company called Millions of Us. And though we live in different cities, we easily arranged for his avatar to meet my avatar - have your people contact my people - at an outdoor plaza on the computer screen.
Is this Mr. Steiger?
Mr. REUBEN STEIGER (Millions of Us): It is. How are you?
INSKEEP: Hey. Nice to meet you.
Mr. STEIGER: Likewise. How do you like your avatar?
INSKEEP: I'm delighted. I especially like the kind of body stocking that he's wearing.
Mr. STEIGER: So what I suggest is, why don't we go inside and have a seat.
Mr. STEIGER: So if you just follow me.
INSKEEP: I'm attempting to do that. Now I'm very new at this, but I'm hitting the arrows and heading in. I'm going to turn a little to the right to avoid banging into glass. Yeah, there we go.
Mr. STEIGER: You're doing a great job.
INSKEEP: All right. Cool.
Mr. STEIGER: Okay.
INSKEEP: And we've walked now - we were out in a public square, and we've now walked into what looks like a lobby of a giant theater here, a giant, very modern theater.
Mr. STEIGER: You and I are sitting in a 3D environment in a virtual world called Second Life. Second Life is the product of a company here in San Francisco called Linden Lab. There are 1.2 million people in Second Life, and in any particular month a couple of hundred thousand people will log in.
INSKEEP: So now you used to work for this company but you have broken away, you've started your own business, which his doing business inside this imaginary world. What are you doing?
Mr. STEIGER: Well, the average user of Second Life is spending 40 hours a month in Second Life. That's equivalent to what the average American spends watching television. And we realized that it would be a very attractive environment for real-world businesses to come and set up shop.
For dollar and a half here you can buy a Toyota Scion and you can get a sense of what the experience of owning that's like.
INSKEEP: When you say I'm going to go try a Toyota Scion, how's that work? Can you take me there?
Mr. STEIGER: Sure. If you want to stand up, we can just walk out in front of the theater.
INSKEEP: Or go the wrong way or - there we go. Okay, cool. Now I'm outside.
Mr. STEIGER: You'll see that in front of me I've put down a car...
INSKEEP: You just raised your hand and this car appeared as if by magic.
Mr. STEIGER: The truth is that you could do the same thing. Right-click on the car and select Ride, and there we go.
INSKEEP: We seem to be flying in the car. We're going - we just plunged into the river.
Mr. STEIGER: I'm not a great driver in real life or in Second Life.
INSKEEP: Okay. So you've got a car, I get that. But how does this become a commercial transaction in the real world?
Mr. STEIGER: What's happening is that you're interacting with the brand in a fairly intimate way. You can customize it to your heart's content, change the colors, the rims, in ways that fit your fancy. That's very interesting to companies.
INSKEEP: So I get to play with and get used to the idea of this kind of car and the car company is getting information on how I play with it and how I change their product?
Mr. STEIGER: Correct.
INSKEEP: Can we go to a clothing store? Because I'm really getting tired of this kind of body stocking thing that I'm wearing here.
Mr. STEIGER: I'll take you to one of the best ones. I'm going to go there first and then I'm going to offer you a teleport.
INSKEEP: Oh, you just disappeared. It's like one of those Star Trek things.
Mr. STEIGER: And here we are. So this is a boutique operated by this woman, Napoline Protagonist. And here she sells eveningwear for both men and women.
INSKEEP: Got a nice checkered floor here, black and white, that we're standing on.
Mr. STEIGER: Over here she's got sunglasses for sale.
INSKEEP: If I want to buy one of those ties that I saw around the corner, can I do that?
Mr. STEIGER: Sure. You just right-click on it.
INSKEEP: Okay. That's easy. Pay resident...
Mr. STEIGER: A dollar.
INSKEEP: Real money or fake money?
Mr. STEIGER: Real money. There are $15 million in transactions taking place in Second Life per month, bordering on $200 million U.S. a year, which...
INSKEEP: When you say $200 million American dollars a year, you mean people are spending that much buying fake stuff. Are big companies making measurable amounts of money?
Mr. STEIGER: They're not. They're considering it a marketing and PR expense. It is an investment in something that they think is going to be very big in the next few years.
INSKEEP: Okay. Let me turn myself around and see if I can see that tie. I hope it's on me. Oh, look at that. All right...
Mr. STEIGER: And as you can see, not only are you wearing it now, but I'm also wearing one.
INSKEEP: Oh. Looks very stylish on you. Well, Rueben Steiger, I've really enjoyed talking with you.
Mr. STEIGER: Steve, it's been a pleasure.
INSKEEP: Great we could finally meet face-to-face...
Mr. STEIGER: Virtually.
INSKEEP: And I'm sorry to report that you can see videos from the virtual world of Second Life, including our avatars, at NPR.org.