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Realty Homes in on Virtual World

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RISMEDIA, Sept. 13, 2007-(MCT)-In the past month, more than 1,000 people have attended an open house for a $3.1 million home listed for sale near Seattle. But this isn’t just any open house.Visitors stroll in as they please, day and night. They can make themselves at home, hang out and even help themselves to the refrigerator.

But even though all this feels real, it’s not.

This home is in the popular online virtual world called Second Life. The home is Coldwell Banker’s three-dimensional reproduction of a real-life home on Mercer Island, Wash. Online visitors use an avatar, or virtual alter ego, to walk through the 5,702-square-foot home, flick on the lights and chat with other potential homeowners.

Experts say it marks the first time a real estate firm has marketed an actual home through a virtual community.

“We want to show the outside world that we’re experimenting in the virtual world,” said Charlie Young, a senior vice president for Coldwell BankerLLC. “We think it’s possible that three-dimensional objects will be commonplace on the Web in the future.”

Coldwell Banker’s experiment is an example of how a growing number of companies are turning to Second Life to do business. Experts say that eventually, as consumers become more comfortable navigating the Web, commerce in virtual worlds will become routine. Companies are holding meetings, interviewing job applicants and buying up virtual land so they can expand their businesses there in the future.

It’s a smart move, said Phil Leigh, president of Inside Digital Media in Tampa, market research and consulting firm focused on the future of media.

“In the future we will all live in our computers like we live in the regular world today,” he said. “We’ll have two worlds.”

Leigh, who monitors online advertising, said he hears about another company working on Second Life at least once a month. Typically, he said, they tend to be in the technology and electronics industries. For example, TBO.com, the online news partner of The Tampa Tribune, has a presence on Second Life.

Lately, however, other companies are giving it a try. The most popular use, he said, is screening applicants for job openings.

“Companies are so anxious to get the best of the best so they’ll do the interview anywhere,” Leigh said. Although companies don’t usually make final hiring decisions based on Second Life interviews, Leigh said, it’s a great way to narrow the list of candidates.

Also gaining popularity on Second Life are industry seminars, Leigh said. Some are free, some charge a fee for attendance.

“A real seminar could cost $1,000 to attend,” Leigh said. “On Second Life, you can attend several seminars and enter and leave without disruption.”

Real estate is a natural progression of Second Life, said David Marine, senior manager for eMarketing for Coldwell Banker.

Using the Internet to sell homes is nothing new. Companies have been posting photos and video tours of tours of homes for years. Even virtual homes aren’t new. Coldwell Banker has been selling virtual homes to avatars on Second Life for $20 each since March, Marine said.

So marketing a real home in virtual world is a natural extension, he said.

Although not all the 1,000 visitors to the online home are serious buyers, it’s generating excitement and attracting those with genuine interest. The virtual home allows people around the world to tour the home before investing in an airline ticket to see the home in person.

“At a normal open house, you may get 100 people to tour the home, if you’re lucky,” Marine said. That’s how many have toured the real $3.1 million home outside Seattle.

Marine said other Coldwell Banker agents are interested in trying the online tours, but there are no plans to do so yet because of the cost. It cost just under $10,000 — which Coldwell Banker paid — to create this three-dimensional home and market it on Second Life.

“The average $250,000 to $300,000 home isn’t going to garner this kind of national interest,” Marine said.

Companies pay for their space on Second Life but not for the advertising they place there, said Owen Lewis, spokesperson for Linden Lab, which operates Second Life from its headquarters in San Francisco. “Linden Lab lets residents dictate what Second Life will be,” Lewis said.

The company says it has more than 8 million members.

That’s a lot of potential buyers for companies who are willing to join Second Life to find them, said Brent Britton, an intellectual property attorney for Squire Sanders in Tampa. Companies are changing the way they relate to their customers.

“It’s becoming much more of a conversation.”

But it can be risky, he said.

“All it takes is one bad experience online and everyone knows about it,” Britton said.

Copyright © 2007, Tampa Tribune, Fla.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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