Google Tries a Virtual World, and National Geographic Is First Brand to Enter

  |  July 10, 2008   |  Comments

Channel promotes eco-reality show "L.A. Hard Hats" with a virtual environment.

Google Labs this week released Lively by Google, a persistent virtual environment where users can build rooms to interact with other visitors. The platform was up for roughly 24 hours before it saw its first brand entry: National Geographic Channel's room for its upcoming series "L.A. Hard Hats." Creative agency Millions of Us handled work for the virtual environment.

With Lively, users can create chat rooms with avatars, where emoticons are replaced by gestures, and personalities can be expressed through hairstyles, clothing, and décor. Rooms are accessed on the Lively site, or can be embedded on blogs and other sites. At launch there is no advertising; however brand integrations are possible.

To promote Hard Hats, which will begin airing August 3, the National Geographic Channel worked with Millions of Us to create a virtual space to emulate the construction scenes depicted on camera. The show follows ironworkers, concrete crews, electricians, and plumbers building a 23-story eco-friendly building in Los Angeles. While there aren't any immediate plans for the show's construction workers or engineers to participate in the Lively environment, visitors to the space can role-play to add realism.

"This is a type of technology that really allows you to put someone in the world of a show in a very immediate and compelling way," said Reuben Steiger, CEO and founder of Millions of Us. "You're interacting with other users that are exploring the site with you and perhaps role-playing."

In National Geographic's presence, the construction theme is manifested through bright caution tape banners inviting visitors into the space. The environment can be accessed through Google's Lively portal, and on the National Geographic Channel Web site.

Millions of Us worked with its client for about two months on the initiative prior to Lively by Google's launch. As one of the preferred developers for Lively, the agency had worked with Google for about six months prior to its debut this week.

The persistent community environment differs from virtual worlds such as Second Life in that the latter is open source, where each user can create content with code that is openly available.

Lively for Google "is a more mainstream product, but they still need to create stuff, they either need to create on behalf of companies, or general content for the world," Steiger said.

Borne out of a Google employee's 20 percent project, Lively is meant to be an extension of the social Web, where users can interact in real-time with 3D graphics. "Like all early tools, [we're] confined to what the tools support," Steiger added. "It's thrilling and frustrating at the same time. The trick is to design within constraints."

Steiger said Millions of Us is currently working with a number of companies on integrations for Lively with Google.

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Enid Burns

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