Robert Curet, the owner of Little Wonder Studio in Burbank, Calif., has all the high-powered software you'd expect a modern toy developer to use: Rhino 4.0 for industrial modeling, Autodesk 3ds Max for animation, ZBrush for digital sculpting, and Maxon Cinema 4D for graphics, for starters. But one of his most recent creations didn't require any of them. Instead, Curet turned to the free tools available in the virtual world called Second Life, sketching out a model and mechanisms for a windup toy and making a rough estimate of the size of the parts. "It took me about half an hour to create the 3D model, where it would have taken me a week to do it before," says Curet. In the next hour and a half he took some pictures of the model, cleaned them up in Photoshop (ADBE), and sent them on to a factory in Hong Kong.
Soon he was meeting an engineer from the factory in Second Life, answering questions about the toy while the two men—each represented by animated avatars—looked at the virtual model, rotated it, and took it apart piece by piece. After that meeting the engineer was able to fabricate a real model and give Curet an accurate estimate of how much the toy would cost to manufacture.
The result: Noggin Bops, plastic windup toys that shimmy side to side while bopping their heads. In January, Curet sold the license to make and distribute the toys to California Creations in Tustin, Calif. Curet is sold on working in Second Life. "It's free, it's fun, and it's social," he says. "It allows you to work quickly and answer tons of questions about your design in three dimensions that you wouldn't be able to answer as well by drawing it out on a board."
Virtual worlds, of which Second Life is the most populous, are becoming more than just a place where Web surfers socialize, play games, or sell nonexistent products to imaginary people. Increasingly, tech-savvy businesses are using virtual worlds to design, create, and even test product concepts before they make their debut in the real world.`OPEN TO EVERYONE'
Already, larger firms have made news with their forays into virtual worlds, particularly Starwood Hotels & Resorts (HOT), which tested a new hotel concept called Aloft. After a trial in Second Life, Starwood decided to put more seating in the lobby and install radios in the shower, among other changes.
The crucial advantage to working in virtual worlds is that they offer much more potential for customers to interact with new products, even ones that don't exist yet, says Brian Mennecke, associate professor in information management systems at Iowa State University. The cost of entry is low, too. "It's open to everyone from day one," says Paul Jackson, principal analyst with technology researcher Forrester Research (FORR). In a report that was co-authored by Jackson and released earlier this year, Jackson points out that, even with collaboration software, sharing 3D or CAD models "has proven tricky, especially when much of the required data lives in proprietary design systems." Working in virtual worlds helps solve that problem.
Curet is a fan of Second Life because it saved him time and money and made it easier to meet with his engineer in China. But other businesses are using Second Life to offer services not readily available in the real world or to build products they couldn't otherwise afford to prototype. And some entrepreneurs are using Second Life to test ideas—such as a mass transit system with individual pods for riders—that aren't feasible to prototype any other way.TRANSPORTING CUSTOMERS
Second Life has its drawbacks, of course. Some find its design tools too crude for their purposes. "The level of detail may not be there if you want to design a microprocessor or the details of an engine, for example," says Fred Fuchs, owner of FireSabre Consulting, which provides services for people who want to do business in Second Life. There are privacy and security concerns. It can be difficult to translate ideas developed in Second Life into more mainstream design software. And it can be especially tough to get a sense of scale in Second Life, because avatars come in all different sizes. But entrepreneurs experimenting with Second Life insist that the prototyping possibilities and ease of collaboration it offers just aren't available anywhere else.
Crescendo Design, a husband-and-wife architecture firm focusing on environmentally friendly designs, has built dozens of models for its clients. They're mostly of cardboard, and they take about three days and $600 to complete. Once finished, it's hard to make changes without taking an X-Acto knife to the whole thing. To see them, clients must visit Crescendo's offices, or someone from Crescendo has to come see them. But the firm is based in Madison, Wis., and its clients are scattered throughout the Midwest. "We were driving a lot to get to clients and show them designs," says co-owner Jon Brouchoud. "Driving so many miles to build an environmentally sound home was counterintuitive."
So Brouchoud and partner Kandy Jentz-Brouchoud began meeting with clients in Second Life, where they can not only view plans for homes but also walk through lifelike 3D models. "We can invite clients inside the design concept instead of just showing them two-dimensional drawings," Brouchoud says. "It gives customers a whole new kind of visualization. There's nothing like being able to walk into what could be your home." Making changes is a whole lot easier, too. Moving a kitchen to gain a southern exposure or putting a stairwell in a more convenient location can be accomplished in just a few minutes. Brouchoud can even incorporate indigenous species into the landscaping and account for the exact topography of the building site. "Second Life has transformed the way I think about design," says Brouchoud. "Even though I can pen-and-ink a design I come up with, I often find myself jumping into Second Life to model it.... The designs are free, and it takes half the time to make the models with the in-world set of building tools." While there is architecture software that lets him make 3D models, they don't allow him to visit with multiple people "inside" the models, and they're not free.