Yesterday Google launched a new beta project called Lively. Lively lets you create virtual rooms that people can join and then interact with each other via avatars. The concept is similar to virtual reality systems like The Sims or Second Life, but the difference is that you can put the rooms that you build on your own web page(s).
When I first heard about it, I thought the idea was a bit over-the-top, but I decided to at least try it out last night.
For a first version beta, it's pretty slick. You start off with a basic set of room layouts and room items (furniture, decorations, accessories) to build your room with, but you can choose to add different items from an on-line catalog (currently, all of the items are "free," which seems to imply a virtual currency may be established later when they let folks create their own stuff). Once you add an item to the room, you can move the item by dragging it and then rotate it as needed. You can also add mood music, either from the catalog of music or by uploading your own music file.
Once you've decided an avatar to represent you, you can enter the room and interact with the items (if there's a couch, you can choose to sit down on it). If there are other people/avatars in the room, you can chat with them just like you would in a normal chatroom and your words will appear in a conversation block over your head for everyone to see (or you can whisper privately to a single fellow occupant). Right-clicking on your avatar brings up a menu of gestures and animations you can have your avatar perform, like clapping, laughing, or dancing like John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction" (yes, it's as bizarre-looking as you might think).
I threw together a very simple room and then embedded the code to access the room on a very simple web page on my site. You can check it out if you like, but since you'll need the Windows-only plugin to enter the room, which is the same plugin that lets you create your own room and avatar, you're probably better off trying Lively out by creating your own room.
The need for the plugin to even enter a room is probably one of the biggest drawbacks of the service. The visual evidence strongly suggests that Lively runs off of Flash and was built using Flex (I once saw the standard Flex "Initializing..." dialog box while loading my room) so it's unclear as to why a separate plugin is needed. Maybe Adobe can work with Google to redo the plugin in AIR so it's at least cross-platform.
The other challenge facing adoption of Lively is, well, its usefulness. Right now, it's essentially an enhanced chat room. Some folks have said that businesses could use it to hold virtual meetings, but I don't see that happening unless Lively is upgraded to allow one or more room participants to speak via a microphone and provides a means of working with a presentation (Lively does allow you to display Flash videos within your room but I didn't explore that feature).
And while the idea of having a virtual room up on your home page or blog is kinda neat, it's not going to do you much good unless there's a compelling reason for people to come and hang out in groups in YOUR room. Centralized virtual realities like Second Life are never empty because there's just one world for people to go to: certain areas might be emptier than others, but there's always someone around to interact with. Still, I do see some potential uses for it with established communities. Popular online forums could replace their existing chat rooms with Lively rooms. Businesses could create a guest room or visitor room where website visitors could hang out before interacting with customer service avatars. Conferences like cf.Objective() or CFUnited could have virtual discussions rooms that allow conference-goers to discuss the day's events with non-conference goers ("Folks, the in-person BOFs will be from 8pm to 9pm, followed by the online BOF free-for-all in the Lively room from 9pm to...whenever.")
Heck, the folks on the RIA cruise in February could take the Lively "tropical island" room template and make a place to meet up with non-cruise landlubbers at some point during the cruise if they wanted to.
Who knows if people would make use of these rooms, but the beauty is that it doesn't take long at all to create a basic Lively room, so if it doesn't work out the time lost in trying isn't painful.
It'll be interesting to see if this goes anywhere. My guess is that it'll depend on how much time and effort Google decides to invest in it and whether it will scale effectively (I heard that there were load issues when it first went public yesterday, but I didn't have any real problems with it last evening).