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Desire is the currency in this virtual world. Its operators see potential to make serious dough.
By Patrick Day, Times Staff Writer
February 4, 2007

THEY get a lot of attention, but massive multi-user online realities (MMOR) remain a bit of a niche — a kind of higher-end playground for tech geeks who aren't interested in slaying dragons on Internet-based games such as "World of Warcraft." On Linden Labs' much-touted Second Life, for example, users can invest in real estate, start a virtual business or just run around like a crazy person. But even though there are nearly 3 million accounts registered on the site, many are inactive or duplicates, and some reports put the site's actual population closer to 100,000. To break through to the mainstream, it appears, something more is needed, and Utherverse.com Chief Executive Brian Shuster thinks he has found a focus that will provide that: It's the sex, stupid.

Instead of attempting to create an alternate economy or simulate a real estate market, RedLightCenter appeals to even baser instincts, sprucing up the seedy-sex-club subculture with a digital sheen and turning the whole experience into a kind of elaborate video game.

Drawing inspiration from Amsterdam's red light district, the world of RedLightCenter looks like a mishmash of every spot in the world that stirs the promise of indulging forbidden desires. Wander the tightly packed urban maze that really does look like an old European city and you may come across a nightclub, bars, movie theaters, lingerie stores, a hotel or a museum. Enter the door of a bordello and suddenly it appears you're standing in the gaudy forecourt of a Las Vegas casino, complete with Roman pillars. Sneak a peek into one of the bordello's unoccupied bedrooms and you're greeted with an oceanfront view that would make a Malibu homeowner jealous.

With MMORs "there's an issue of having a critical mass of users and having things to keep them involved," Shuster said. "It's the problem of Second Life. It's a massive expanse with nothing to do."

With a site that features a place called the Passion Pit designed for public sex and several areas catering to the BDSM community, Shuster is not coy about his community's purpose. "Sex is something everyone can participate in," he said. "By starting our first virtual world with that, we've overcome a major problem."

Though it may seem a risky venture, as a businessman Shuster is playing it safe. In the recent history of consumer technology, sex has often been what has pushed developments to the next level. When competing videocassette platforms struggled to control the marketplace in the early 1980s, the porn industry's adoption of the VHS format helped it gain dominance over Beta. Porn also helped spur the rise of DVD and the growth of streaming video online. As Shuster says, "Sex is going to bring us to the holodeck."

Of course, online, as in life, nothing comes for free. Though it costs nothing to download the software that allows users to enter the RedLightCenter world and chat with others, participating in its more lurid pleasures requires paying $20 a month. Though just paying the cover charge doesn't necessarily guarantee a user will get some dirty Internet action. Oddly, people in RedLightCenter.com behave much like they would in real life — ask a girl to dance and she's liable to decline, saying she's not feeling well. So for those whose social skills are poor even behind a keyboard, the creators of the site have contracted with a bordello, where the working girls log on from home and are more than willing to overlook poor typing skills, for a price.

Since the site launched in early 2006, more than 250,000 users have downloaded the software, but only 5,000 have actually made the leap to paying VIP status. Shuster says he expects the site to reach a million users by mid-2007. By comparison, Second Life has nearly 3 million registered accounts and "World of Warcraft" has 8 million paid subscribers.

Once users pay to upgrade, they can engage in any number of unmentionable behaviors, all made available by a handy list of choices that appears on-screen. Cybersex, and all its variations, is just a few mouse clicks away.

Shuster comes from an adult entertainment background, spending the last few years running several X-rated websites that brought in an estimated $10 million a month. With his money, he founded the Internet venture Utherverse.com, with RedLightCenter as his first product, run by his co-creator Ray Schwartz. So far, he says, they've been able to keep costs low, funding the entire project so far for just $8 million. The company employs 42 people in offices in Vancouver, Canada, and Brazil, but it uses the talents of more than 100 volunteers who build items and locations, police the population and help members in other ways.

Shuster claims the site's software is safe and the community so friendly and helpful "it's like walking into 'It's a Wonderful Life.' " They even had their first gay wedding recently, with an "incredible turnout," Shuster said.

MissDawnBridget says …

ONE of RedLightCenter's community members is Miss DawnBridget, a self-proclaimed "Chief of Security" for a BDSM "family" of 13, providing protection for them and for members of other similar "families." She agreed to speak only through her RedLightCenter avatar.

As she hunkered down near the entrance of a nightclub, with her submissives occasionally stopping by to sit on her lap as she talked, she said she was a law enforcement officer in real life, living somewhere in the American South. She claimed to spend more hours in RedLightCenter than some people spend awake. "I love [cybersex]. It's safe and I get to go to bed by myself," she said, adding that she has no relationship in real life.

Can a simulated reality ever become a suitable substitute for real life? They may get a lot out of it, but the reality is that the denizens of RedLightCenter are alone in a room, staring at a machine, paying with real-world dollars to simulate physical intimacy. Shuster, at least, is certain that virtual worlds can be just as appealing as the real world. He has plans to introduce more experience-oriented online cities, non-sex themed. In his next "city" he wants to have a roller rink, a beach and scuba diving.

"It's not an intellectual argument, it's an emotional argument," Shuster said. "It's the very early iteration of 'Web 3-D.' I don't scuba dive anymore, because I can't get up at 4 a.m. and get all that equipment out. But I can do it online, and when I'm done with the experience, it feels like I've experienced the thing. From a mental health standpoint, people engage in something that's real."

patrick.day@latimes.com