Just over a year ago I found myself looking at one of the most established virtual reality scenarios available for the average computer user. Second Life courtesy of Linden Labs in California was already a well established venture leading people out of their everyday experiences and into a world where literally anything could be created and by that benchmark pretty much anything could happen.

Like many I took this life simulation out for a spin and amazing as it was I suspect like many others it was something I hadn’t got time for, as a result after a few weeks I “moved out” of Second Life and up until recently had given it very little thought. Not that my real life is particularly exciting you understand but I figured it was getting me by just fine and I had no need for an additional one.

Recently however Second Life has made a return to the press for one simple reason. Money. I suppose if cash is a motivating factor in this world then why shouldn’t it be anything but as important in a virtual one. Those who are familiar with Second Life will already be aware that it has an active currency system and nowadays that currency is starting to leak out into the real world. Recent reports have indicated that there are a large number of people making a living wage out of a virtual existence. One report even indicates that Second Life has already spawned its first real life millionaire.

The buying and selling of virtual land has been one of the primary income generators for the astute resident and the sale of these virtual land masses has led to the creation of some pretty impressive in world empires. However that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Of course the big argument for many is that people are transferring real U.S Dollars into Linden’s virtual currency (Linden Dollars) and with this money they are technically buying…well, nothing. I’ve spoke to a few people of varying technological savvy and the prospect of “buying nothing” is still the trickiest one to get their head around, to them it’s a little like the emperor’s new clothes and it really is a valid point. But it would seem that money into bytes does compute (as if we had any doubt).

Of course the residents of SL would argue there are many transactions that people make in everyday life that we come away from with no physical evidence of, you watch a performance at the theatre or the cinema and you come away with precisely the same thing as you do with a Second Life purchase. Nothing physical, it’s all in the head.

Not that this has stopped a number of real world concerns from applying themselves to gaining a foothold in this virtual reality. Companies such as Microsoft, American Express and Wal Mart are already dipping their toes in the water (which incidentally has a very realistic ripple). Essentially not only is this an environment where experimentation is a by word but it is also another commercial domain to be conquered and for the larger concerns a small investment now could reap large rewards later. Dell for example have literally set up shop in Second Life, residents can buy a computer for the real world in the virtual one.

The creative element is something else that has moved on in leaps and bounds during the year as well. Second Life has become home to the “virtual gig” and it has been attracting some big names. Regina Spektor has used SL to promote her new album while Suzanne Vega became the first established artist to actually “perform” a gig in virtual reality. With an avatar created to resemble her real life counterpart she sang the songs and they were streamed through “her” while residents watched at one of SL’s many “live” venues.

Even as I’m writing this I’m fully aware of how crazy some aspects of Second Life sound. The sheer ambition of the project is something that has to be marvelled at. Vast arrays of real life experiences have been recreated in this environment (and yes some of them border on the somewhat seedy side). There are clubs and bars, malls and the aforementioned real estate interests. You can drive a car, ride a bike or even sky dive. And if you have the time and patience you can learn to build your own additions to the world whether it is a property of your own or something as simple as a range of clothing for your avatar to wear and sell.

Of course there are some sides to this virtual dream that bare closer inspection. I noticed during my interaction that there are some individuals within Second Life who for one reason or another never seem to leave, which despite my own love of technology leaves me wondering just how healthy long term exposure to this kind of environment actually is. A place where you can be literally be anyone you wish or do anything you want is strangely compelling but as is the case with other large online multiplayer concerns it can lead to trouble. Although not immediately related to Second Life, Blizzard Entertainments World of Warcraft has seen criticism in the light of reported incidents of game addiction with game sessions running into solid days. Of course whether addiction is the issue is open to contention but one wonders just what dangers are prevalent in spending such long amounts of time online.

In terms of actually playing Second Life the hardware requirements remain on the meaty side. PC users (the vast majority) find themselves getting an easier ride due to the relative cost of beefing up their system with a chunky graphics card, which is where a lot of the workload is placed. For the purposes of testing Second Life I was using a dual processor G5 Mac with 4Gb RAM and a stock ATI Radeon Pro 9000 that quite often struggled with the heavy graphic workload. Saying that though, what did surprise me was my G4 iBook did manage to play the game despite the obvious limitations of its graphics chipset. There is also a Linux version available.

Second Life also suffers to some degree with downtime, understandable though considering what a vast concern it is. To their credit Linden Labs do their utmost to keep problems to a minimum and if you simply can’t live without SL during the patches there is a Beta Grid for you to wander on to usually reserved for testing purposes.

Looking at Second Life and how it has grown it would seem that some of the early promises of scenarios of films and stories like Tron and The Matrix are just starting to break into the mainstream. Second Life was not the first of these concepts to gain a foothold but looking at how the real world and its media are poking and prodding at it like some labatory curiosity makes me think that out of all the potential options the user has this could be the one that stays the course.