• Image about Christopher Mead

With online alternate realities, flourishing businesses are discovering a parallel (retail) universe.

Earlier this year, the hip clothier American Apparel - well known for its risqué ads and sweatshop-free T-shirts - opened its newest store on the island of Lerappa. As with its other store openings, American Apparel turned the event into a party, complete with festive music and refreshments as well as prizes and giveaways for shoppers who stopped by. There were, and are, a number of unique quirks to the Lerappa store, however. For one thing, T-shirts and other clothes are mind-numbingly cheap at $1. The clientele is also somewhat unusual. It's not uncommon to see well-dressed animals - as in foxes or birds - saunter into the shop, and a fair number of customers enjoy flying from rack to rack.

Before you make plans to visit, though, keep one thing in mind: American Apparel's Lerappa shop isn't real - at least physically.

See, Lerappa (apparel spelled backward) is actually an island in an online virtual world called Second Life. As its name implies, Second Life is a sort of alternate ­reality in which people, by downloading software to their computers and logging in, can create and participate in an entirely new existence for themselves on their computer screens. Just about anything that can be done on terra firma - and quite a bit that can't - is possible in Second Life, including starting a business and making money from it (this world's currency, the Linden dollar, is convertible to U.S. greenbacks), buying land, joining clubs, attending concerts and events, and on and on.

When it comes to virtual worlds, Second Life, which was created by San ­Francisco-based Linden Lab, is hardly the only option. In fact, in what are loosely termed multiplayer­ online games - thus named because so many people, located in different places, can participate simultaneously - Second Life is fairly small. By contrast, World of Warcraft, a medieval-themed game in which players battle for power and treasures, boasts more than five million players worldwide. Other virtual worlds include Habbo Hotel, There, and Entropia Universe. What distinguishes Second Life from some of the other virtual worlds, though, is that players have access to 3-D modeling tools and scripting technology, which allows them to create homes, clothes, dances, and walks for their online graphic characters, called avatars, rather than being confined to a premade universe designed by a game company's programmers. In ­addition, ­residents own the content they create, enabling them to participate in Second Life's robust economy, in which $1 million is traded­ each month.

The possibilities are endless: You could design an avatar to represent you as a tall, fashion-savvy hipster (with a taste for American Apparel clothes) or as a long-haired hippie; pounds can disappear with the click of a mouse; and nothing requires people to stick to their real-life gender - you don't even have to be human. After establishing an on-screen persona, which users maneuver through the virtual world with a keyboard and mouse, Second Lifers join more than 940,000 other residents from all around the globe in the game of, well, living.

At any given time, there are potentially millions of people checking out of the physical world and pursuing relationships, careers, and entertainment in one of the many virtual worlds. While it might all sound bizarre (and, to some, like a colossal waste of time), there's a fairly persuasive case to be made that these virtual worlds, growing as they are in popularity, are poised to have a profound impact on the way people interact as well as on how companies operate, market to their customers, and train their employees.