Real cars drive into Second Life

Car companies open dealerships in virtual world. Extended warranties not needed, optional dragon heads available.

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- General Motors' Pontiac division is spending thousands of dollars to create a make-believe dealership that will sell make-believe cars for as little as a few dollars a piece.

The dealership will exist, so to speak, in Second Life, an on-line virtual world.

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Second Life allows users to animate a computer-generated representation of themselves - or someone they might like to be - and move about, talk, walk and "teleport" from place to place in a computer-generated world all while interacting with people who might be, in physical fact, thousands of miles away.

Since it started about three years ago, the population of Second Life has grown to 1.2 million users.

For now, at least, the Pontiac dealership will offer just one model: the Pontiac Solstice GXP. But you can have it in any color you want. And we do mean any color. Stripes, spots, plaid, purple daisies. No problem.

Surrounding the dealership will be Motorati Island, 96 virtual acres that GM (Charts) has bought and will give away, lot by lot, in "land grants" to Second Life members interested in building car-culture oriented business.

Gallery: Second Life Cars

Some ideas include drive-in theaters, car customizing shops and restaurants with in-car dining service.

There will be no repair shops.

"I would hope you wouldn't have a virtual breakdown of a virtual vehicle," said Pontiac Spokesman Jim Hopson.

On the heels of Toyota

Pontiac is entering a space already occupied by two of the brand's Japanese competitors.

Scion, which opened a dealership in Second Life on Nov. 6, sells its three models there. Toyota's (Charts) youth-oriented brand, has so far sold about 200 computer-generated cars in Second Life, said Scion spokeswoman Allison Takahashi.

Commerce in Second Life is transacted using Linden Dollars that can be purchased with real currency. The current exchange rate is about L$280 per US$1. A virtual Scion sells for about L$300, or a little over a buck, said Takahashi.

The key feature of Scion's Second Life cars is that they are fully customizable. Owners have added big off-road tires and wheels to the cars. To the Scion xB, a boxy van with a shape reminiscent of a toaster, one customizer added two giant slices of toast.

The Scion showroom exists in its own neighborhood, Scion City, inside Second Life.

"Scion City is this sort of futuristic, gritty, decaying city," said Reuben Steiger, chief executive of Millions Of Us, the company working with Scion and Pontiac to create their virtual corporate presences.

Prior to founding Millions of Us, Steiger was Evangelist for Linden Labs, the San Francisco-based company that created the Second Life universe

Nissan (Charts), which opened its Second Life dealership in October, is providing copies of its Sentra to residents free of charge. The cars are delivered from a vending machine the size of an office building. But first, you have to request a meeting with someone named Toast Alicious. He is, as you might have guessed, a piece of toast.

"You're teleported to the toast avatar and the toast avatar gives you a token," said Steve Kerho, Nissan's director of media and interactive marketing.

Put the token into the giant machine and out pops a Sentra. It's yours to keep and drive as long as you like. Nearby on Nissan Island is a test track with a vertical loop so you can test out your driving skills. So far, Nissan has handed out about 2,500 virtual Sentras.

Nissan's cars have only limited customization possibilities, Steiger complained.

"You can't turn the hood into a dragon head," said Steiger, "which would be really cool."

Nissan aimed, instead, for a lifelike representation of the product. The only available colors are those you could get on an actual Sentra. Even the interior is rendered in true-to-life detail, except for a few additional items like an anti-gravity button in the middle of the dashboard. It's needed to drive around the giant loop.

Making cars from pixels

Everything in Second Life is created by its users from "primitive objects," or "prims," a set of seven fundamental shapes. Like Lego blocks, they can be combined to make useful things such as nightclubs, fashion accessories, guns and cars.

Virtual vehicles are a particular challenge to build, said Steiger.

Much like extra weight in real cars, complexity slows down virtual cars and makes them drive badly. Complicated shapes tax the virtual car's engine - the computer's processor - so little power is left to make the car drive in a quick, fluid motion.

To minimize the number of "prims" involved, while making a car look like something other than a wagon load of cinderblocks, designers must be especially creative. Basic shapes can be carved in a process sometimes referred to as "torturing the primitives." Colors can also be used as shading to suggest contours.

Even the best result can end up seeming, inadvertently, like the products of an incredibly advanced technology. Or a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.

Cars will occasionally drive part way through solid objects like utility poles and walls. Someone posting on a blog for Electric Sheep, the company that created Nissan Island, mentioned his car was so fast it was able to drive over a bridge before the computer had time to finish making the bridge.

Automobiles are largely unnecessary as transportation in Second Life, a place where individuals can shift themselves almost instantly from place to place.

But they excel as a form of self-expression, even more-so than real cars, said Steiger. So user-created cars, as well as airplanes, snowmobiles and blimps, existed in Second Life even before real-world car companies started buying land and opening dealerships.

With Motorati Island, Pontiac hopes to develop the nascent "car culture" within the Second Life community, said Hopson.

Potential Second Life entrepreneurs can submit ideas at the Website Motoratilfe.com and there is no need for the ideas to have anything to do with Pontiac in particular, said Hopson. They just have to involve cars.

"The potential of this is rather staggering," he said.

Gallery: Second Life cars

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.