Buying office furniture is so, well, dull. It usually means going to an authorized dealer or ordering from a company website after checking information about color, ergonomics, and sustainable features.
Now compare that to shopping for, say, a Steelcase Leap chair in Second Life, the popular three-dimensional, computer-generated virtual world on the internet. In Second Life, you—or, more precisely, your avatar, the animated character that represents you in this parallel universe—can sit in a Leap chair, stretch out to see if it's a good fit, and chat with a Steelcase representative about the design of your own Second Life office. You can explore other products in the Steelcase store (none of which exist in the real world) after being teleported there via a sleek Steelcase helicopter.
All this might sound like science fiction, but the possibilities of Second Life are energizing the imaginations of individual users—more than 8 million are registered so far—as well as corporations, which are establishing a presence in the virtual universe and exploring the best ways to use its interactive 3-D environment. In addition to Steelcase, design industry giants including Herman Miller and Autodesk are also going virtual, as are some architecture practices. And although it's not clear where this new world is headed, these companies believe that Second Life's graphically intensive structure and build-it-yourself, user-generated content have broad appeal—especially to a creative design audience.
“A fair majority of the people out there in Second Life are designers,” says Ryan Schmidt, who runs Steelcase's website as well as its Second Life presence, a pilot project that had a quiet launch this spring. Besides generating buzz about Steelcase, the idea behind the company presence, Schmidt adds, was “to get with those design folks to see what they want on Second Life and to interact with them, to immerse ourselves in the experience.”
One needn't be that creative or nerdy to appreciate Second Life, although it may help (navigating the site and design tools can be tricky). Registration is free and comes with downloadable software. Once in the virtual world, which resembles a video game, you create an avatar—a figure that can look however you want, including better than yourself—who travels around, speaks with other users' avatars via instant messaging, and does just about anything one does in the real world. That includes designing and building a house, or renting an office, or simply buying stuff: Second Life has its own currency, Linden dollars (named after its creator, San Francisco–based Linden Lab), which can be exchanged for real dollars.
Launched in 2003, Second Life has received breathless media attention. While skeptics now claim that the actual number of users and how much time they spend there might be exaggerated, that hasn't stopped corporate giants from staking a claim in the new medium, often to test-market products and services. For example, Starwood tried out its new Aloft hotel chain there, before it was built, while flower retailer 1-800-Flowers.com is set up in a brick greenhouse.
Herman Miller previewed its Second Life offering during this year's NeoCon trade fair in Chicago. This first foray featured avatars dressed in jeans and company T-shirts who took viewers on a tour of the Herman Miller “island”—as the Second Life locations are known—which was modeled on the company's Michigan headquarters. In the retail section, the avatars sat in classic Herman Miller pieces, like an Eames lounge chair, and moved them around the space (always easier to do in the virtual world than in the real one) to demonstrate how they look from different angles.