Virtual Reality Makes Real-World Cash, Boosts Self-Esteem

Last year, a man who goes by the moniker "Sal9000" married the love of his life in a ceremony that was streamed live online. The 27-year-old lives in Tokyo. His bride "Nene" lives inside a Nintendo DS handheld video game.

Sal9000 paid real money to marry a virtual woman, and he is not alone. Well, technically he's not.

Worldwide, millions are offering up their credit cards to create their own avatar in Wee World, advance their criminal empire in Mafia World, or explore, interact and travel in a virtual world in Second life.

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Entropia-dot-com boasts a virtual universe with a real-life cash economy. One user bought a virtual space resort for $100,000.

These, and other online games, can be found on myriad sites, including Facebook. They are fueling a rapidly growing $15 billion-a-year industry that is not only transforming the way we interact with our loved ones but changing the advertisement game.

Academic: People Live Out Alternate Lives Online

"It's like Shakespeare, all the world's a stage," said Edward Castronova, a professor of Telecommunications at Indiana University. "Things in the real world are not very good. The online world is this place where people can live out alternate lives and stories."

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Castranova is among a growing number of academics closely watching the merger between the real and virtual worlds. He says there is real value in both worlds, and at this point, there is no turning back.

"It is similar to when the Europeans came to the New World," says Castronova. "The lives of those in both places changed forever."

Many unfamiliar with virtual online worlds are initially shocked by the notion of paying real money for "fake" or virtual property. Though, Castronova argues, the decision is not that unusual. Virtual goods also have market value.

Castronova says he would "spend $100,000 on anything" if he believed he could resell it for more.

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While this has some social scientists concerned, it has others, particularly in the business world, virtually salivating.

Virtual Worlds Could Be Real Boon for Advertisers

Advertisers spend a third of a trillion dollars annually to induce consumers to buy their products.

The personal engagement experiences provided by online games present an opportunity unmatched by television or many of the other traditional means of advertising.

Last month Audi created an NCAA Basketball tournament bracket for Facebook. It encouraged people to use the site by giving out virtual credits for the popular "vDream" online racing game. The credits allow gamers to enhance their virtual cars and ultimately reveal their own product -- a real-life Audi vehicle.

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"You have bidirectional communication with the fan or follower, and that is something that is not possible with TV," said Jason Beckerman, co-founder of socialsuitcase.com. "So you can send out deals to them, and you can have a conversation."

This new way of advertising has nothing to do with spam or pop-ups. Emerging companies, like Social Suitcase, have spotted the opportunity for marketing in online social media and now are helping companies like German carmaker Audi create relatively inexpensive ad campaigns that target specific audiences with a payoff for the consumer.

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