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Making the Virtual Real

As online universes such as Second Life, World of Warcraft, and There.com expand, the boundaries between the real and the virtual will become more porous.

That is the conclusion of "Making the Virtual Real," a recent report by the futurist consulting firm Social Technologies. "Clothing, cars, and furniture are just some of the items that have been, or have the potential to be, exported from the virtual world to the real world," says Social Technologies analyst Christopher Kent, author of the report.

Moving online goods offline is also advancing other areas of innovation. "Consumers seeking to move goods out of the virtual realm are helping to advance the idea of personalized manufacturing," Kent notes.

Provocative forecasts
In his report Kent provides half dozen provocative forecasts about how the virtual will become real, including these two:

1. New tools will help virtual-to-real conversion.
Already, mass customization websites such as CafePress.com are allowing customers to create products based on their online pursuits, hobbies, or interests.

"As these services expand, creators will be able to produce a wider variety of goods than the clothing, mugs, and cards now available. This means more and more people will be able to sell the goods they’ve envisioned and designed online," he comments. "The ability to turn a profit selling products that originate in the digital world will only accelerate the movement of more online products into the real world."

2. Virtual worlds will provide design innovation spaces.

Companies are beginning to embrace virtual worlds as places where they can design and test products before launching them in the real world. Starwood Hotels, owner of W, Sheraton, and Westin Hotels, is developing a new hotel called Aloft that exists in the real world—and online, as well.

"By having consumers interact with its Aloft hotel online, Starwood’s goal is to create a virtual design lab where they can study people’s reactions and behavior and use that information to better configure the actual physical building," Kent shares.

Business implications

How can more companies benefit from the blurring of boundaries between the virtual and real world?
"Companies can take advantage of the blending of the virtual and real worlds by providing templates for some of their products in virtual spaces and allowing customers to experiment, interact, and alter them," Kent suggests. "Companies can also up their ‘cool quotient’ by seeking out popular online designers and signing them to an exclusive production deal."

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