Digital life - what is all the fuss about?

Virtual worlds could be the future of the internet.
Learn more
  • Updated:13 Sep 2007


Toy figurines

In brief

  • Virtual world platforms run on your computer over the internet.
  • There are free and paid platforms.
  • There are many unresolved legal issues, plus other dangers and threats.

The internet has brought us many things — email, videos, games, shopping, Google, Wikipedia and the list goes on. Now there’s a new phenomenon: an opportunity for you to participate in a life-like world with a character — a digital version of yourself, which can work, socialise, shop and do many of the other things you do in the real world.

  • Your character is known as an avatar and you can personalise its name and appearance.
  • Your avatar can interact with other characters through an instant messaging-style window.
  • You must register to create a character and usually download a program that runs on a computer connected to the internet.

There are different types of virtual worlds — some are more like games, some are chat forums and others simulate a life-like world. Second Life is probably the most well-known virtual world platform, but there are many others.

Virtual worlds encourage interactions between people and aim to mimic the real world. Avatars can socialise, shop, own property, trade and create new objects, such as artworks and clothing.

However, a virtual world, like the real world, needs rules and regulations. Right now there are more questions than answers when it comes to issues such as copyright, crime, money, property, rights and responsibilities, abuse, privacy, security, body image and the protection of children. But it’s not all bad; there are some interesting developments in virtual worlds as well.

Please note: this information was current as of September 2007 but is still a useful guide to today's market.

Virtual opportunities

Virtual worlds provide a space for communication, interaction, fun and education. Users can meet others in any part of the ‘world’, sample entertainment and art and communicate with others in a more interactive, immediate environment than email, instant messaging or social networking.

Virtual worlds are also being used in educational and commercial ways. Educators, for example, are looking to virtual worlds to extend multimedia and interactive teaching. Some universities are starting to hold seminars or conferences where participants from all over the world can attend through their avatar in the virtual world. Virtual worlds are also being used to create simulation environments for practical training exercises in education courses.

Nic Suzor, board member of Electronic Frontiers Australia, an independent organisation devoted to protecting internet users’ rights, sees huge potential in virtual worlds. “These environments are currently able to provide engaging experiences and, as the technology improves, they will grow in importance for all types of communication — from business meetings to public forums to education programmes,” he says.

Virtual worlds may open up avenues of study previously restricted by space, time and cost. Sheryle Moon, chief executive officer of the Australian Information Industry Association, the representative body for the industry, thinks that the educational opportunities are virtually unlimited. “Imagine being able to take a semester course at any university in the world. Imagine turning up as an avatar to a lecture room for a Harvard course or a language course at the Sorbonne, in Paris,” she says.

It’s no surprise that businesses are looking at virtual worlds as advertising opportunities, with the ability to attract customers beyond physical boundaries. They also see the chance to save money.

“Virtual worlds provide potential access to new products anywhere in the world. Rather than companies having to ship stock to multiple countries for a simultaneous launch, they will be able to launch in one virtual place where everyone can purchase or download the product instantaneously,” says Sheryle.

Microsoft’s Windows Vista launch, Sony music releases, and the ABC’s and IBM’s virtual shopfronts are just a few examples of the way business has moved into the virtual world.



Sign up to our free

Receive FREE email updates of our latest tests, consumer news and CHOICE marketing promotions.