Second Life, a graphics-rich online virtual world, has been called stupid, boring, dull, pointless, sad, addictive and simply a waste of time for corporations and individuals alike. But those criticisms from detractors — in this case Aussies — haven’t dismayed Second Life’s fans nor dented its popularity. Operated by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, Second Life has millions of registered users, who complete millions of dollars of in-world transactions each month.

So are virtual worlds like Second Life meaningful to real estate or just a passing fad of little or no importance?

The folks at Coldwell Banker seem to believe Second Life has real-world value. The franchise operator has set up shop in the virtual world and launched an in-world realty business to sell virtual homes to people who earn and spend “Linden dollars” in the virtual economy. Second Life homes initially were expected to fetch the equivalent of approximately $20 U.S. Coldwell Banker wants to build brand name-recognition among Second Life participants and leverage that awareness into real-world real estate sales.

Coldwell Banker is no small-fry catch for Second Life. The brokerage company has about 3,800 affiliated real estate offices and 124,000 sales associates in 31 real-world countries. The opening of Coldwell Banker’s outpost in Second Life even merited a formal announcement to the media.

But could virtual worlds such as Second Life also offer other benefits for real estate companies and homeowners? Perhaps, and here are some possibilities:

Innovation. Virtual worlds could allow real estate brokers and salespeople, and home buyers and sellers to play with different aspects of real estate brokerage and housing to stimulate creative thinking and innovation. Creative thinking is important both to generate and implement new ideas.

Experimentation. Virtual worlds could help real estate professionals and owners try out new ideas and assess how they might be applied in the real world. Experimentation generates feedback as to how people respond to innovations. Alternate realities also could suggest new ways to solve seemingly intractable problems and offer forums in which to test and refine those solutions.

Education. Virtual worlds could help realty professionals and buyers and sellers learn how real estate is bought and sold, and find out how macroeconomics, supply-and-demand, location, amenities and other factors affect housing markets. Information also could be presented about buying and selling land or managing rental apartments or commercial property and so on.

Training. Real estate training seminars and role-playing activities in virtual worlds could help brokers, sales associates and their customers learn and practice new skills and behaviors in individual or group settings. Buying a house in Second Life could teach prospective real-world homeowners about deeds, disclosures, title insurance and other aspects of home-buying.

Relaxation. Real estate transactions can be stressful for professionals and principals. Virtual worlds as a form of escape and entertainment could help overwhelmed and stressed-out people unwind, relax and have fun.

Community. Virtual worlds are accessible to people of all ages, incomes, backgrounds and abilities if they have access to the Web and enough bandwidth to support the in-world experience. Opportunities to communicate and interact with real estate professionals and owners at different stages of life or in different parts of the world could create shared experiences in a global community and build bridges between people in geographically distant places.

Vision. Virtual worlds could help brokers and sales associates explore different career paths and choices and envision their professional dreams. Those who want to advance, become more successful or try out new identities and lives could start safely in an anonymous virtual world.

Design. In Second Life, entire buildings can be constructed in a matter of hours. That suggests virtual worlds could be used to create new forms of housing to meet shelter needs in different environments, climates and situations, such as universal design. The opportunity also exists to experiment with architecture, landscaping and interior design. Creativity and innovation in the virtual world could enhance the quality of life in the real world.

Profit. While many in-world activities could be appealing without the added incentive of profit, Second Life’s in-world currency can be converted to U.S. dollars, and some people have earned real-world money from their Second Life ventures. That suggests virtual worlds one day could become corporate profit centers in addition to the other non-monetary benefits.

Marcie Geffner is a real estate reporter in Los Angeles.

Copyright 2007. Marcie Geffner. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author.

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