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Is Sun's News For Real?

There won't be any cameras flashing or reporters jostling each other for better position at Sun's press conference Tuesday. The reason is simple. No one from the media will be there.

Okay, that's not entirely true.

Sun  is holding the press conference from within Second Life, a virtual online world.

Reporters will have to assume an avatar , a virtual online identity of their choosing, to participate.

The Sun event is but one of many indications that virtual reality isn't just about fun and games.

AMD, for example, launched a virtual tradeshow with HP, IBM, Oracle, Sun and others participating.

Bruce Shaw, vice president of worldwide commercial and enterprise marketing at AMD, said the virtual tradeshow, where visitors can click their way to different exhibitor booths, watch a keynote address and download whitepapers, has attracted over 300,000 unique visitors in less than a month.

And he said about 80 percent are downloading content and spending a lot more time at the site (about ten minutes on average) than previous online events the chip company has tried.

Sun's intentions will become clearer at Tuesday's press conference. John Gage, a Sun vice president and chief researcher, will be hosting the event along with Chief Gaming Officer Chris Melissinos.

They will talk from a virtual stage area via audio feed with a Q&A session facilitated by an instant messenger function at the site.

Visitors will be able to view an exhibit of video kiosks featuring highlights of various Sun innovations, events and customer projects.

After Tuesday, the virtual infrastructure Sun has built in Second Life will be open to any registered Second Life "inhabitant." It will function as a kind of meeting place for Sun employees, developers and others interested in Sun products going forward.

Linden Labs, the San Francisco company behind Second Life, is not a Sun customer, but some of Sun's developers were attracted to the online meeting venue. Company founder and CEO Philip Rosedale is scheduled to virtually participate in the Sun press event.

"Anecdotally, we know a lot of the people that hang out at Second Life are techie and Sun wants to reach them," said a publicist for Sun.

There's nothing virtual about Second Life's growth, which is very real at an impressive 20 percent per month. Over 10,000 participants are online at any one time worldwide.

Anyone can register and visit for free, but the fun begins when you start spending "Linden dollars."

To build or buy anything in Second Life, you need to use the system's virtual currency which costs real money.

But it's also possible to buy and sell items and make real money. Linden Labs said there are 230,000 unique items sold or traded each month, some 15 terabytes of user-created data, and 500 events each day. Earlier today, the running tally posted at the site said $207,348 in U.S. dollars had been spent in Second Life in the last 24 hours.

Such companies as Wells Fargo and the Starwood hotel chain have a presence at Second Life. Rosedale told the Associated Press this week, that Second Life, launched in 2003, is "almost" turning a profit.

Mitch Kapor, chair of Second Life's board and its first and largest investor, credits Rosedale for having the vision to see the potential of virtual worlds.

"Philip was very clear, before anyone else was talking about user-generated content, about users being able to build their own online world," Kapor told internetnews.com.

"He was very prescient about that and what followed, the ability to empower creativity and entrepreneurship with virtual currency."

Kapor was also an early investor in RealNetworks and launched the first major business application for the IBM PC, Lotus 1-2-3 in the early 1980s. He sees huge potential for virtual online communities.

"Hopefully the leader will remain Second Life, but regardless, as a category, I see people spending a significant portion of their day in a virtual world," said Kapor.

"In 1992 if you said you were going to visit a Web site, the response you'd get is, 'What's a Web site'? The idea of going virtual seems avante garde now and it's a kind of escapist medium, but there are mundane applications like e-commerce and corporate training that will find a place there."

Analysts agree it's very early in the virtual game to know how broadly it will be accepted.

Over time, travel to multiple virtual worlds and communities, hosted by different companies, might be possible.

"There's been talk of the idea where your avatar becomes a portable and recognizable 'you' that travels with you along with your virtual assets," said JupiterKagan analyst Joe Laszlo.