Google Gives Virtual Reality a Second Life

It's no Second Life yet, but Google's Lively aims to be your 3-D experience on the Web.

When it comes to Google, nothing is shocking when the search company enters new territory. That is why I didn't fall out of my chair when the company announced Lively July 8.
Currently blowing up the blogosphere, Lively is Google's first official stab at virtual reality. As I figured months ago from talking to Google's OpenSocial engineering guru David Glazer, Google is making online 3-D a social play.
Lively, a Web browser plug-in for Firefox and Internet Explorer users can download now, is a 3-D simulation application that users embed on their blogs or Web sites to give them a more personal, palpable touch online.
Yes, like Second Life, users create an avatar and customize their rooms and environments. Want to hug someone and have a chat? Lively is your app; get a feel for it in this ReadWriteWeb post before you sign up.
Or you can view Google YouTube videos in virtual TVs and show photos in virtual picture frames inside Lively rooms. Moreover, apps that run in Lively rooms will run on your desktop, so the apps are hosted and on-premises, which gives users the option to have the kind of control over their online experiences they've come to crave.
Niniane Wang, engineering manager for Google, said as much in a blog post July 8, which comes several months after some sites such as Google Blogoscoped said Google was working with Apps partner Arizona State University on virtual reality.
This reporting proved prescient as Google harvested feedback from ASU students.
Lively is not a finished product. Wang wrote that the app is a 20 percent-time project released via Google Labs, a hot test bed for new apps that still includes Gmail, believe it or not. Wang's motivation? To make the Web less static.
"A while ago, I looked around the social Web and wished that it could be less static. Sure, you can leave a comment on a blog or write a text blurb on your social networking profile. But what if you want to express yourself in a more fun way, with 3D graphics and real-time avatar interactions?" Wang wrote in the post.
The Associated Press reports that Google will not monetize Lively with ads, which makes sense. No company has figured out social advertising yet, so there is no point selling ads on the 3-D Internet. AP also says Lively works on Facebook and, eventually, will run on MySpace.
Is Lively a game changer? No. IBM is already deep into virtual reality, thanks to a key partnership with Linden Labs' Second Life in which IBM actually hosts the startup's software on its own servers.
Behind the scenes, IBM leverages virtual reality in its Lotus software and is working to bring avatar capability to enterprise customers via Sametime and eventually its Connections social software.
The issue is that companies are not buying into this yet whole hog. IBM will try to tell you different, but the evidence, despite a few customers, isn't there. It's too early, for whatever reason.
But here's the great part for IBM, Second Life, Google and startups such as Vivaty, which TechCrunch noted just unveiled a major rev of its 3-D software: The technology is ahead of its time in terms of customer adoption.
Thinkbalm founder and former Forrester Research analyst Erica Driver and I discussed 3-D Web adoption in the enterprise months ago.
"The perception of most business people (if they've even heard of virtual worlds) is that virtual worlds are games. It's hard for many business people to imagine using them for work. But with large companies like Diageo, Unilever, BP, IBM and others using virtual worlds for work, the case studies will start to come out and perception will gradually change."
Add Google to that list.
Just as Google gained groundspeed as a search engine, virtual reality will eventually take off and be a valuable tool in both the consumer sector and in business. This shift, like so many others in IT, will be subtle and not swift.
But once it does get wings, virtual reality will change the way we do business. It could very well start in the consumer sector with Google's Lively and bleed into business.
I don't know about you, but I'd prefer a 3-D Web conference to a live Web conference. It offers a personalized meeting with privacy, if that makes any sense.
And you can't put a price on that, though Forrester Research and others will tell you 3-D Internet is a multibillion-dollar business in five years or so. I guess we'll have to wait and see.
In the meantime, I plan to give Lively a whirl and blog about it.