By  on April 30, 2007

Virtual universes are no longer solely the domain of Star Trek enthusiasts. Beauty companies are among businesses now tapping into a whole new world of opportunities online, where tuned-in internauts are living double lives-and spending money.

Virtual, three-dimensional worlds, such as Second Life, There, Cyworld and Virtual Laguna Beach, allow people to create computerized versions of themselves, called avatars. These can hold jobs, have hobbies and do everyday activities, such as dine at a restaurant. With the click of a mouse, avatars can chat with each other, go shopping, dancing or bowling and create things to fly around with-from vehicles to wings.

At press time, Second Life counted 5.5 million residents. These can buy and sell items using "Linden dollars," a currency named after the site's parent company, Linden Labs. In any typical 24-hour period, the equivalent of $1.5 million (?1.1 million/£745,000) changes hands.

Such sites have become incredibly influential, since they reach a wide demographic.

In South Korea, for instance, 90% of the population under the age of 20 uses Cyworld, a 3-D social networking site, according to Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner Inc. tracking firm.

These new worlds serve a multitude of purposes. Candidates running for office in France, for example, opened cyber headquarters and held election rallies there, while some couples have even hosted "wedding" ceremonies. Beauty and fashion brands are also catching on to the medium's power to create buzz about real-world products. Virtual (and real) merchandise is traded regularly, as well.

"When you open any magazine-from technology to fashion to lifestyle-they're all talking about Second Life," said Justin Bovington, chief executive officer of Rivers Run Red, a Londonbased "immersive spaces" agency established in Second Life since 2003. The company has engineered launches there for brands, such as Calvin Klein and Reebok.

"Culturally, people are becoming more comfortable with the idea of having an avatar and being in a 3-D space," added Betsy Book, director of product management for There.

So true-to-life are these alternative web worlds, in fact, that American Apparel fashion label opened a store in Second Life in June 2006. And L'Oreal Paris held a Miss Second Life beauty contest in March, where the event's 250 participating avatars received virtual powder compacts and lipsticks. The company will hold similar promotions every two months to promote its color-cosmetics collections.

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