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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Google Makes Chat More Lively

The latest project out of Google Labs gives chatters avatars and virtual spaces to interact, like a scaled-down version of Second Life.

Goofy animated avatars and colorful fantasy worlds may sound like the stuff of a new Wii game or time-killing mobile app, but they’re actually part of one of Google’s most playful new projects yet. The company strayed from its utilitarian side on Wednesday with the launch of Lively, a new chat environment that adds graphics and animation to the usually plain world of chat.

With Lively, Webmasters can set up a virtual “room” for visitors to drop by and interact in. They can select everything from the wall d├ęcor to furniture, while visitors can create their own Sims-like avatars to play around with. Rather than merely chatting, users can walk around and perform different actions – like giving a hug – the same way they might in a more immersive game like Second Life.

Engineering Manager Niniane Wang created the concept as a “20 percent project,” Google’s term for an out-there side project that it allows employees to indulge with 20 percent of their time. The idea was to create a virtual space for Web surfers to interact with one another in a more interactive way than the more conventional chat.

Users can try Lively by merely visiting a Lively-equipped page, or create their own custom rooms through
Google Launches 'Lively' 3-D Online CommunityThis week Google launched a 3-D social community called Lively to make the online community less static. The platform allows users to populate Web pages with a virtual room, including YouTube video on virtual TVs, photos in digital frames and avatars to navigate through the environment.
Lively, however, isn't a new concept as some Web users have been using Second Life for nearly five years.

Writing on the official Google Blog, Niniane Wang, engineering manager, said the platform will be pushed to users through Google Labs.

"The Lively team wants to help people experience another dimension of the Web," wrote Wang. "We hope you will use the product to express yourself with and without words, and to do this in the places you already visit on the Web."

The inspiration for the project came to Wang when she felt that the Web had become too static.

"Sure, you can leave a comment on a blog or write a text blurb on your social networking profile," Wang wrote. "But what if you want to express yourself in a more fun way, with 3-D graphics and realtime avatar interactions?"

Lively users can choose and design their own avatar that interacts in the environment, which can also be customized to user tastes. Users can pick furniture and other decorations to make their Lively environment closely reflect their own personality, interests and taste.

A Lively room, as created by the user, can be embedded into a blog or Web site. Wang hopes that users on the platform will connect with Lively because it offers interactions that are more than just text.

"Of course, you can chat with each other, and you can also interact through animated actions," wrote Wang. "In our user research, we've been amazed at how much more poignant it is to receive an animated hug than seeing the text '[[hug]]'."

Google worked with students from Arizona State University to develop the Lively platform. The version rolled out to users was based on feedback from ASU students as well as the Google Desktop team.

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