"The Lively team wants to help people experience another dimension of the Web," said Google engineering manager Niniane Wang in a blog post. "We hope you will use the product to express yourself with and without words, and to do this in the places you already visit on the Web."
Lively feels more like a Google Talk-powered chat room with 3-D camera controls than an immersive environment like Second Life. In part that's a function of the small in-browser window that presents Lively's various rooms -- full screen graphics are inevitably more compelling.
And in part that's a function of performance. It's likely that the user experience is better with a better computer. The IBM ThinkPad T2500 (2GHz Core Duo) I used to visit Lively for the first time responded too slowly for the experience to be enjoyable. (Eerily, though Lively crashed Firefox 3, requiring that I restart my browser, sounds from the Lively world continued uninterrupted, even though I didn't try to log in again. As I write, there's intermittent canned laughter bubbling from my speakers.)
Entering the Lively environment requires Windows XP or Vista, Microsoft Internet Explorer or Firefox, and the Lively browser plug-in. Mac support may be a long time coming. A Google help document says that Lively is a Google Labs project that's still being tested. "We hope to support other platforms in the future, but for now you'll need a Windows system to access Lively," the help document says.
Lively rooms, created by users or already constructed, can be embedded in any Web site. Visitors to Lively can enter the various rooms to chat. They can also modify the appearance of their Lively Avatar and can add furniture to rooms.
Lively rooms can display YouTube videos on virtual TVs and display Picasa photos in virtual picture frames. They can also display Google Desktop gadgets and play music uploaded from the user's computer -- insert your copyright lawsuit here.
Google says in its help documentation that it is working with a small number of trusted testers, vendors and creative agencies on special items for Lively. The company says that it expects to enable more user content generation soon. At some point, there will almost certainly be virtual commerce and advertising.
Lively is certainly easier to use than Second Life, but it lacks the latter's programmability. For Google developers and content partners that may not be an issue -- the inaccessibility of the Lively's code infrastructure won't matter much if Lively generates lots of gadget use and ad page views.