Web juggernaut Google has joined Second Life and a host of competitors in the steel cage virtual world war with its own Lively service.
Lively is a self-described "chat experience in which you can communicate and express yourself using avatars in your very own space."
Not quite a living virtual world, Google's Lively allows users to create customized avatars and travel into different "rooms", simple spaces with changeable furniture, to mingle with others online. Lively is traversed via the browser window, yet navigation between rooms will not require reloading any web pages. User-developed rooms are embeddable in existing sites.
According to Mel Guymon, Google's 3D operations director, the project has been in development for over two and a half years and, in line with Gmail and other Google products, will be in constant beta mode with updates occurring as they're completed. Over 200 contractor developers and a chunk of Google's staff have been working on providing a catalog of content. Items available for decorating individual's avatars and rooms are currently listed with a free price, but labeling each item with a price tag implies future for-sale digital goods.
Using a browser plugin based on Emergent's Gamebryo middleware engine, the world is connected to social networks such as Facebook, sites using OpenSocial and soon MySpace, allowing users from one of these social networks to log into Lively via those accounts. Otherwise, Google users may log in with their Google Accounts once the plugin has been installed.
Upon personal testing, the avatar creator operates in the same fashion as most typical create-a-character screens in games, a cross between The Sims and Miis. Selecting a pre-constructed room and decorating it with your own couch is a snap, but doesn't feel as warm and inviting as it would if you spent hours learning the interface to properly feng shui the pad. The most prominent issue seems to be running the worlds from within the browser, as working on anything else non-intensive in the browser caused crashes on a couple of occasions. However, the core concept of creating customized rooms and embedding them on web pages is present and any performance issues could be patched to deliver on the program's promise.
Guymon explained the expansiveness of the search giant's plans, "Google is uniquely poised to validate this space for the mass market... this is not for geeks - this is for everyone."