Do it Virtual

At the intersection where online video games meet social networking websites, there's a new way to buy all kinds of naughty stuff, virtually and, increasingly, for real. While the use of virtual worlds for marketing and purchase of real products is in its infancy, the possibilities are endless.

Now you can shop for bondage gear wearing nothing but bondage gear (or, for that matter, a super-hero leotard with butterfly wings).

Red Light Center, a virtual community designed after the adult district in Amsterdam, launched in May 2006 and presents visitors with blocks of adult clubs, movie theaters, shops and venues for sexual activity, including a bathhouse and a bordello. Each member is represented by an avatar, an animated figure that you can name, shape and dress as you please.

You can join for free, but the action is pretty tame unless you upgrade to VIP status, at $20 per month. Only the avatars of VIP members can get naked, get into certain clubs and theaters, or have sex on the site.

The virtual retail stores, which include adjoining sex-toy and lingerie vendors, a drugstore, and a site for healthy lifestyle products, display goods not on racks or shelves but on windows containing electronic posters. Click on a product, and you're whisked to a website where you can buy the real thing.

Red Light Center's Vancouver-based CEO, Brian Shuster, said that the ability to put yourself in a virtual store makes shopping a different experience than clicking through web pages. "Sales are all driven by interpersonal action," Shuster told XBIZ.

The site's retail mission is to rent space to established vendors; Red Light designs and builds the stores now, but Shuster said that in three to five months, the site will be offering businesses the software to build their own stores. There's quite a bit of empty retail space in Red Light Center now, and some of the retail tenants are on site because Red Light has joined their affiliate programs.

However, Shuster said, Red Light is opening a couple of stores every week and has a queue of 24 retailers. "We get several requests every day," he said.

He's also making deals with major studios for videos. "This is going to be where it gets really exciting," Shuster told XBIZ, citing the potential not only for DVD sales, but for virtual premiere parties.

Shuster added that after attracting 250,000 members largely through word of mouth, Red Light is starting to promote itself, and he expects to add 100,000 new members per month. Moreover, what started out as a predominantly male membership, is now almost half women. In fact, Shuster said, there are more women than men logged onto Red Light at any time. "There are more men than women registered, but the women stay longer," he said.

While Red Light Center is a relatively new kid on the block, Second Life, the brainchild of high-tech engineer and entrepreneur Philip Rosedale, has been up and running since 1999. Four years ago, it had 2,000 residents; today, total registration tops 6 million, with people from 100 different nations logging in and creating avatars.

Linden Lab in San Francisco operates the virtual world, which offers myriad opportunities for networking. Residents can attend everything from ball games to art gallery openings to dance clubs. Second Life makes most of its money from selling virtual real estate, which can be entire "islands" devoted to a particular business or affinity.

Residents make purchases in Linden dollars, which they buy from Second Life. One U.S. dollar will buy you upwards of $300 Linden, so a special new outfit, say, for your avatar retailing at $400 will set you back just a dollar and change. Every day, residents buy and sell goods, services and property representing about $1.5 million in real money.

Adult products, along with adult entertainment outlets, are very much a presence on Second Life: purveyors of lingerie, bondage and fetish gear, videos and sex toys are plentiful. As in Red Light Center, goods are presented in two-dimensional windows posted on virtual walls.

In Second Life, though, it's the avatars who put the products to use, so the action is animated and some items have a lot more functionality than they do in the real world. A bondage collar, for example, not only encircles a submissive's neck but also gives him instructions. The naughty schoolgirl- and-teacher set comes with a "scripted" chalkboard and a chair that allows an avatar to assume nine different positions.

Florida-based animator Kevin Alderman, as Stroker Serpentine, calls himself "the unofficial adult evangelist for Second Life," and says that the folks at Linden Lab "don't support adult content, but they don't condemn it, either," adding that residents of the virtual world are supposed to be at least 18 years old.

Sales of actual products don't seem to be a priority for Second Life, but the capability is there. Linden offers a program that allows vendors to connect their Second Life sites to the web and lets buyers click through to purchase real-life products from the vendors' websites.

Second Life has been attracting real-world corporations as tenants lately, with Toyota, Dell, Circuit City, American Apparel, IBM, Sears and Adidas among the mainstream businesses promoting their wares "in world." L'Oreal Paris recently held a Miss Second Life beauty contest and distributed virtual makeup to the 250 avatars who participated.

The jury is out on how effective a real-world marketing tool Second Life is. On the one hand, a visible business presence in Second Life is so inexpensive that building there is an almost-free way to increase brand awareness among the young demographic retailers crave. You can show off your products and build interest in real-world sales by letting avatars test-drive them "in world." Corporations can get feedback from residents about their products and even suggestions for future designs.

And, of course, the fact that people visit virtual worlds to act out their fantasies with animated Doppelgangers, a drawback when selling mundane items like microwaves, may well be a plus for businesses selling the props for sexual gratification.

However, the potential for translating virtual sales into real-life visits to websites and stores is far from proven. Unless you're comfortable with video games, SL's user interface is difficult to figure out and manipulate.

Only one of six new residents visits the world regularly for more than a month, and fewer than 10 percent of SL's members visit as frequently as once a week. Of the virtual world's millions of residents, only 15,000 to 40,000 are logged on at any moment. And Second Life's retail stores attract a tiny fraction of the traffic that its entertainment venues enjoy.

As far as Alderman is concerned, though, Second Life is the good life. A former plumbing contractor, he made the virtual sex business his only business two years ago, creating and selling sex toys, furniture and designer genitalia for avatars. His company, Eros, also sells an animation system that allows avatars to have sex with each other and offers design and implementation services to other adult content providers. "I love the freedom that Second Life offers," Alderman told XBIZ. "If I can think it, I can make it."