AVIRTUAL replica of Tyneside has been created which is expected to boost tourism visitor numbers to the region and help North East businesses gain a global presence.
Members of Second Life – a virtual world which is expected to be used by the majority of people online by 2012 – can now “stroll” down to Newcastle’s Quayside and across the Gateshead Millennium Bridge to the Baltic.
Once inside the contemporary arts centre they can browse through the latest exhibitions – although, rather than being crafted by famous creatives such as Yoko Ono, they will be made by students at Newcastle University.
Users with money in their pocket can even pop into the virtual shop run by Gateshead’s famous football shirt retailer Toffs to deck themselves out in black (or red) and white stripes. They can also attend virtual events on the Quayside run in parallel with real events. Earlier this month the first live mixed-reality event in Tyneside’s Second Life counterpart took place in collaboration with the Tyneside Cinema.
International DJ’s played a set to an audience across the world live in Second Life and a real-world crowd at the cinema’s bar. But these are just the initial stages of the plan to use Second Life to encourage more visitors to the North East and help digital businesses in the region tap into the increasingly-lucrative opportunities of the virtual world.
Technology firm Vector 76, which created the virtual Tyneside, plans to expand the Second Life landscape up from Newcastle’s Quayside as far as North as St James’s Park and East to the Ouseburn Valley as well as across parts of Gateshead.
Vector 76’s Shaun Allan said: “We want to push everything about the North East and we hope to expand as quickly as we can.
“We are trying to create more and more events and there’s an awful lot of interest starting to bubble up.”
The company will also develop a business quarter behind the virtual Law Courts on Newcastle’s Quayside which it plans to rent out to online businesses in the region.
The development could help North East firms follow in the footsteps of global brands such as IBM, Dell and Nike who have all set up operations in Second Life. Mr Allan said: “We are going to build a business quarter and are inviting companies to rent bits of it. There will be a couple of buildings which you would expect to see in Dubai. We are talking to digital firms about them getting involved and it will give them a global virtual space.”
The first business to sign a commercial deal with Vector 76 in Second Life is Gateshead’s global football shirt retailer Toffs, which has opened a virtual shop on the Quayside linked to its website. Avatars – virtual versions of people – visiting Tyneside in Second Life will also be given a free black and white shirt which is aimed at encouraging them to go and buy a real shirt online. Toffs’ marketing director Dale Robinson said: “We are keen to get involved because it’s a North East venture and it’s about getting your product into a wider market, although we’ve never done anything like this before.”
Meanwhile Andrew Dixon, chief executive of the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, said Second Life could play a major role in bringing more visitors to the region.
“We really like this because it takes the Newcastle Gateshead brand on to the web, to a new generation of virtual visitors and potential real visitors to the region. One of the great things about it is that they use all the top imagery of Newcastle Gateshead in their virtual world so you are getting the reality of the Tyne Bridge and the Millennium Bridge beautifully recorded online virtually - it’s a brilliant use of the Newcastle Gateshead brand.”
According to technology consultancy Gartner, 80% of internet users will have a “second life” in a virtual world by the end of 2011 while it is estimated that 20% of large retailers will be selling in Second Life by 2012.
Vector 76 is hoping to encourage more North East brands to set up a presence in Second Life and also plans to build partnerships with the region’s tourism businesses to help transform virtual visitors into real visitors.
The company, in discussions with Benchmark Communications over the possibility of hosting online/live events in Second Life, is based in Gateshead. Mr Allan, an ex-employee of North East video games giant Eutechnyx, recreated Tyneside online with the help of his colleague Celia Begley and former-colleague Mike Pinchin.
For more images of the North East featured in Second Life go to www.journallive.co.uk