Researchers at the University of California at Riverside have developed a Second Life academic research facility and platform called "eLab City," which combines a panel of Second Life users, survey and experimental research capabilities, and tools for unobtrusively tracking user behavior given informed consent--all aimed at studying "virtual consumer" behavior.
According to the researchers, most academic simulations in Second Life are "virtual campuses" oriented to classroom instruction and course support. There are, however, no academic Second Life projects devoted to studying how consumers behave in virtual worlds -- which is where eLab City comes in. eLab City will be a platform for the academic study of virtual consumption. Modeled as a "live-work-play" community, eLab City will provide a working laboratory and subject pool for academic research. While allowing people to be someone else in another world, researchers will study consumer behavior. In the first half of 2008, consumers can make a new life for themselves in an online community offered through eLab City at UC Riverside's Sloan Center. Prebuilt virtual residential apartments will be provided -- primarily to students -- for fixed periods of time at no charge ,with larger units for management. eLab City will also virtually house a consumer lab, office space, library, conference rooms, survey space, resident-run shops, a cinema, concert stage, and an exhibition hall for art, design, and fashion shows. The opening show at eLab City's exhibition hall in Spring 2008, "Virtual Virtual," will feature original work by noted digital artist Peter Stanick. eLab City itself is being developed for the Sloan Center by the team of visual artist and composer Cezary Ostrowski (aHead agency, Poland) and film editor Nadia Hennrich.
"A number of reasons exist for the popularity of Second Life environments," said Thomas Novak, a professor of marketing at UC Riverside's Anderson Graduate School of Management and cofounder of the Sloan Center for Internet Retailing. "While there is an element of escape to virtual worlds, there are also very positive motivations like the desire for a creative outlet and for new forms of social interaction."
The Sloan Center is currently collaborating with the London office of Global Market Insite, a provider of global market intelligence solutions, to develop eLab City's online academic panel of Second Life residents. A second project will use automated "survey bots" to approach and interview Second Life residents.
Through the Sloan Center, eLab City will provide a vehicle for companies to sponsor cutting edge academic research. Similar to the early years of the commercial Web in the mid 1990s, companies today are struggling to understand how virtual worlds will play out in the coming years. eLab City hopes to offer some answers.
"True physical attractiveness and social skills don't impact first impressions online, but what about virtual attractiveness and social skills? This is one aspect of research we will be studying," Novak said.