"I think that it's almost indisputable that a significant fraction of humans' time will be [spent] in these worlds. At a minimum, you want to get somebody's attention, whether it's because you want to teach them something, impress them with a brand image, or help them understand that some option is available," says Edward Castronova, author of Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games and an associate professor at Indiana University. "Your company, your organization, or the government is going to have to be in there."

He may be right. Second Life is growing at a rate of almost 20 percent per month, and it's not just businesses that want to have access to a growing virtual population. Seeing it as a promising venue to get in front of potential voters, Mark Warner, the former governor of Virginia and a potential 2008 presidential candidate, was interviewed - through his avatar - in Second Life this past September.

Clearly, something socially, culturally, and economically significant is happening in these virtual worlds. Looking to tap into what could be a much larger movement, companies are probing what sort of presence they should have there.

"Corporations are discovering this as a place to do business," says David Fleck, vice president of marketing for Linden Lab. "They don't necessarily understand what Second Life is, and there's this discovery process they're going through." In opening its Lerappa store, American Apparel became the first real-world retailer to actually establish a presence in Second Life.