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Friday, November 1, 2013

Parallel Universes Part I: IMVU – Stareyes Galaxy Reporting

IMVU boasts 100 million accounts and the concurrent logins are at 50 000 level. The company itself is based in the Silicon Valley and they have backing from several well-known venture capital investors. The target demographic for the community is the 18-24 year-old bracket. On sign-up, personal data is required, so some content will be locked for underage users. The minimum sign-up age is 13.
Doing interviews on Second Life (SL) I often have found people who have transferred their online existence from IMVU over to SL. For these new avatars entering SL, the openness and the variety found here is often bewildering but liberating at the same time. I decided to set up an account on IMVU and see what that world is all about, and how the experience compares with SL.

On the IMVU “About” web page, the aims of the experience are stated very clearly in an embedded YouTube video as to empower and make people realize their fantasy of letting themselves be something they cannot be in real life. Thus, it is very similar to what many people want SL to be. The way IMVU works is that you download a light-weight viewer program that controls your account and your navigation and movements, then you “teleport” via web page links. This is very similar to finding out about SL content in a web browser and then allowing the SLURL to plug in to teleport you on your viewer.

Logging on for the first time, I could choose from a few basic avatars and these were readily customizable with some free pieces of clothing. I got some bonus “credits” which are used as the currency in IMVU for further purchases. There are some types of content that only can be unlocked by becoming a “VIP” member which costs US $ 9.99 monthly. Several payment plans seem to be available.

The content is organized in “chat rooms”, each of which seems to be able to contain up to 10 avatars at a time. These are organized thematically, and with a web page search you can find a suitable one to go to. I went to see some of these. Once you get to a chat room, you are assigned a spot where you land, and other avatars in succession land next to you. It is possible to move to other locations by clicking, or by walking. The first chat rooms I got to were occupied by Dutch avatars and I did not get very far communicating with them. One of them was clearly looking for female company, and I heard from other avatars as well that the all too familiar sex chat is a common pastime on IMVU. At another “Adults only” chat room there clearly was a couple having an intimate moment, much like on SL’s “A” sims. The chat appears as lines on the lower part of the viewer window, and also as bubbles over each avatar’s head. The bubbles float upward with time, and they can be pulled down for review. Long chat lines get divided into several bubbles, without hyphenation. Maybe due to the young demographic, the chats I was in resembled the early days of MS Messenger, with a lot of abbreviated words and “txt tlk”. Private chats are possible among friends, and upon starting such achat, a copy of your avatar is transported to another chat room, in my case “My Room”. Therefore, it is possible that the avatar is in several places, all at once.

I interviewed Nathan, whom I happened to meet on a beach. Here is the interview as it appeared on the chat log, edited for clarity:

"Guest_nathan87sand has joined the chat"

Guest_Stareyesgalaxy: Can I interview you for my article in the SL Enquirer?
Guest_nathan87sand: sure
Guest_Stareyesgalaxy: Thanks
Guest_nathan87sand: np star
Guest_Stareyesgalaxy: So, how long have you been on IMVU?
Guest_nathan87sand: 3 months
Guest_Stareyesgalaxy: And you like it here, obviously. You mentioned a girlfriend, did you meet her here?
Guest_nathan87sand: yes i did and we are getting married
Guest_Stareyesgalaxy: On IMVU?
Guest_nathan87sand: and in real life too
Guest_Stareyesgalaxy: Oh wow... congratulations.
Guest_nathan87sand: thanks
Guest_Stareyesgalaxy: How would you say IMVU responds to your online socialization needs?
Guest_nathan87sand: i think it’s great
Guest_Stareyesgalaxy: What's best about it?
Guest_nathan87sand: its more entertaning than facebook. You have an avi and you can do most things that facebook does.
Guest_Stareyesgalaxy: What do you like to do here, online, on IMVU?
Guest_nathan87sand: talk with my gf or redecorate my room
Guest_Stareyesgalaxy: Do you socialize with other people besides your girlfriend?
Guest_nathan87sand: yes i do
Guest_Stareyesgalaxy: (Well, obviously, as you are with me now) Meet a lot of people from around the globe, huh?
Guest_nathan87sand: yes all the time
Guest_Stareyesgalaxy: Do you have some advice to our readers, about getting acquainted with IMVU?
Guest_nathan87sand: it’s fun you get to meet new people from around the world and there’s lots to do
Guest_Stareyesgalaxy: Okay... thanks a lot for the interview, and I wish you all the best with your fiance'
Guest_nathan87sand: thx

Graphically, IMVU is very pedestrian if you compare the experience to what is common in Second Life. The avatars are much more cartoonish, with distorted proportions. The scenery usually is done with bright colors and adequate detail with regard to the whole graphic scheme.
Each chat room change also involves a forced advertisement. Looking at the advertiser kit, it seems like the content creation is in many ways tied with real-world products, and embedding commercial content seems to be one of the major revenue schemes for IMVU.

 VIP members apparently can forgo viewing the adverts. Regarding advertising, it is surprising how often I see IMVU banners on web pages I visit. Their marketing effort is clearly much more pronounced than with Second Life.

From the little time I spent on IMVU, I can of course only relate my first impressions. To me, it seemed to cater to the target demographic, and I had a bit of difficulty adjusting to this mode of communication. The frame of reference was apparently the messenger/chat room culture, and I was solicited for private identity details in a way I would find unacceptable on Second Life. On the other hand, some of these details were freely offered in my direction as well. In my private chat with Nathan, we were able to address some actual topics of interest, although I seemed to write much longer sentences, which in turn were chopped into pieces to be shown on the “bubbles”. The cartoonish appearance I was stuck with might improve given time and proper resources, but from what I saw, most avatars looked quite similar in style.  For anyone wishing to get acquainted with virtual worlds, IMVU seems like a good place to start. I am looking forward to exploring other “Parallel Universes” and will return to the article series in due course.
I thank Nathan87sand in IMVU for helping me in the research for this article.

IMVU home page:


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