How IMVU Works

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Screenshot by Shanna Freeman

Although instant messaging has been around in some form for decades, it really didn't take off for public consumption until the late 1980s when America Online (AOL)'s predecessor, Quantum Link, offered a user-to-user messaging system. Later instant messaging clients gave you the ability to exchange files and photos and to chat via audio or video. However, the majority of the actual chatting done on messaging services such as AIM, ICQ, Yahoo! Messenger and Windows Live is still done by typing text into a chat window.

Imagine that instead of typing into a chat window and seeing words pop up on a screen, the conversation takes place in balloons above your head. Well, not your actual head -- the head of an avatar that you create and customize. Your avatar sits on a sofa with other avatars, chatting away. It can laugh at things that are funny, hug someone or show off a dance move. That's the idea behind IMVU, a graphical instant messenger service started in 2004. While many messaging clients allow you to create an avatar, in IMVU, these avatars are three-dimensional, animated and hang out in themed rooms and environments. They can also express moods and perform actions by themselves or with other avatars.

IMVU bills itself as the "3D Avatar Chat Instant Messenger & Dress up Game" because customizing your avatar's look is such a huge part of the experience. Apparently users like the concept; IMVU claims to have more than 30 million users worldwide [source: IMVU]. It's also a real moneymaker. In June 2008, the company reported monthly revenue of $1 million, and more recently, Best Buy invested $10 million in venture capital in the company [source: IMVU, Venture Beat].

In addition to offering public and private chat rooms, forums and groups for any interest, IMVU also provides users with a Web page, blog, image gallery and music. Graphic designers can create items and sell them via the site. Intrigued? In this article, we'll look at the basics of navigating IMVU and discover why it's become so popular.

Using IMVU

The tutorial can get you through the basics of IMVU.
The tutorial can get you through the basics of IMVU.
Screenshot by Shanna Freeman

Getting started with IMVU is simple. Like many other instant messaging clients, you just need to download a piece of software from the Web site. First, though, you have to create an account by going to the main IMVU Web page and clicking on "Sign Up." You'll choose a name, gender and one of 10 predressed starter avatars. Next, you enter information about yourself, such as your e-mail address and birthday. Now you're registered and can download the file to install IMVU on your computer.

Once you've installed the software, log in with your chosen username and password. IMVU has a tutorial to walk you through the basics, such as changing your clothes, hair color, accessories and rooms. There are several free options in each category. The tutorial also explains how to change moods and expressions as well as perform actions that come with your avatar. For example, your avatar can get in a sad mood or do a back flip. It can also sit down by clicking on seat icons in the room and instantly teleport anywhere in the room with a single click.

Playing around with your avatar is a lot of fun, but IMVU is a chat client, after all. There's a random chat button that can connect you with someone else interested in chatting with a stranger. You can also specify if you'd like to chat with someone with specific attributes, such as a certain age range or gender. If you have friends who also have IMVU, you can add them to your buddy list. You still type words into a text box, but the avatars have balloons above their heads that show what you're saying. Now you can do things with other people, like shaking hands or high fiving. When someone else is in your room you can stream music -- more on buying it later.

Finally, you can enter rooms to chat with others. There are thousands of public rooms based on various themes -- vampire castles, dance clubs, hospitals and anything else in between -- including accompanying furniture, decorations and sounds. These rooms usually have a capacity of no more than 10 avatars at a time. Because they're user-created, there are often stipulations on who can enter the room and what kinds of actions can take place in it. For example, some rooms are female only, or don't allow accessories such as pets or wings (which take a lot of bandwidth to render and slow down the room). You can also participate in groups and forums.

Next, we'll look at what you need to really get the most out of IMVU: credits.

IMVU Credits

You can do all kinds of things in IMVU using the free options, but you might get a little envious of everybody else's beautiful avatars, cool actions and amazing rooms. While chatting through IMVU is free, it's more enjoyable if you spend money. Some things require spending actual money, while others require you to purchase credits, which function as IMVU's virtual currency. There are three different types of credits: regular, promo and dev.

Regular credits are purchased in increments of 5,000, starting with 5,000 for $5. There is a discount that kicks in at 15,000 credits and increases incrementally the more credits that you buy. For example, 50,000 credits cost $44.95 and 300,000 credits cost $200. These credits can be used to buy clothes, accessories, facial features, rooms, furniture and music. In addition to buying them in the IMVU Web site, you can buy currency cards at Best Buy and other stores.

Promo credits work much like regular credits, with a few exceptions. You can't use them to buy gifts for other people and you don't buy them, you earn them. Otherwise, they spend exactly like regular credits. When you register for IMVU, you receive 1,000 promo credits for creating your avatar and going through the tutorial. You can also get promo credits by checking out new products, getting referrals from friends, spinning a prize wheel each day or signing up for offers with IMVU's partners, such as becoming a new Netflix or DirectTV subscriber.

Finally, there are dev credits, or content developer credits. These are actually tokens earned by content developers when someone uses promo credits to buy an item that they have created. Ten tokens equals one regular credit. Along the same lines, content developers earn regular credits when their items are purchased with regular credits.

Now that you know what you need to purchase items in IMVU's catalog, let's take a closer look at what's for sale.

IMVU Shopping

Before you buy items for your avatar with credits, there are some other things that you might be interested in buying with your money. For example, you may notice that your avatar has "Guest_" in front of its name. In order to get rid of that prefix, you have to pay a one-time fee to buy your avatar's name. You can also pay to change your avatar's name or verify your age when you're over 18.

There are also some different types of passes that you can purchase, including Access Passes (APs), VIP Passes and Try it Passes. IMVU requires users to be at least 13 years of age, but screens users under the age of 18 from seeing what it deems to be adult content. Users who are 18 and older can purchase an Access Pass (AP). There are groups, forums and rooms available only to AP holders, as well as specific AP items. Examples of AP-rated content include items and areas that may depict things such as alcohol and tobacco use, nudity, profanity, blood and mature themes. An AP includes age verification.

A VIP Pass is essentially a subscription to IMVU that includes several benefits: name registration, priority customer support, a 5 percent discount on catalog items, 5,000 credits per month and no visible third-party ads. The Try it Pass allows you to try items from the catalog on for 20 seconds while you're chatting with your friends.

Items in IMVU are sold in the Catalog. This is where you can find everything from skin tones, makeup and clothing to rooms, furniture and stickers for your avatar's profile. Prices range widely depending on the complexity of the item, but with nearly 2 million items, it's likely that you'll have plenty of choices no matter what you want. For example, a catalog search for "long dark red" in the female hairstyle category turned up over 140,000 matches, which cost anywhere from 300 credits to more than 10,000 credits.

There are also bundles of items for sale in the Catalog. These themed collections combine outfits, items, credits, rooms and more for a discounted price. Each month there are featured bundles on sale, but there are always countless bundles available that cost less than buying each individual item. Other bundles put together credits, rooms, clothing items and different types of passes.

IMVU's Music Store sells individual tracks and albums by popular artists on all types of record labels. Music can be purchased for credits as MP3s or at a lower price for streaming in public and private rooms. Licensing agreements stipulate that one other person must be in the room to stream music, and music is played by mixing three or more tracks. Each mix can include up to two tracks by the same artist or from the same album.

We've just scratched the surface of IMVU, but as you can tell, it's a pretty unique experience. Next, we'll look at the benefits and compare it to other graphical instant messaging services.

Benefits of IMVU

The majority of IMVU's users are female teenagers, which comes as no surprise given the dress-up aspect and cute, Barbie-like appearance of the avatars. Interacting with other avatars in beautiful 3-D themed settings also appeals to the sense of imaginary play, and artists love the creator program. Since you can earn credits by selling created items (and retain the intellectual property rights to items that you create), it's possible to defray a chunk of the cost.

IMVU isn't the only kid on the block, though. Sometimes it's been compared to Second Life, the virtual world launched in 2003, but the two are pretty different. Second Life is more immersive; it's aimed at adults and isn't Web-based like IMVU. Second Life also has an in-game currency and creators can sell their items. However, it's much more complex in terms of customization, going far beyond clothes and furniture to include purchasing and designing land, vehicles and buildings. The avatars are more customizable and generally look more realistic than IMVU avatars.

A closer competitor is Habbo, a Web-based virtual hotel that launched in 2001 and is aimed directly at teenagers. Like IMVU, Habbo consists of chatting or playing games using customizable avatars in public or private rooms that can also be customized. However, Habbo has a mechanism to filter out profanity, sexual references and indentifying information such as phone numbers and e-mails. It's more limited than IMVU in terms of creativity, although there's still plenty of customizing going on. Habbo offers groups, or clubs, and individual Web pages. There's an in-game currency, but no creator program. Habbo avatars have a very distinctive, cartoon look and feel.

In public beta since February 2008, Rocket On describes itself as a "parallel virtual world" added to existing communities and Web sites. Unlike traditional messaging clients, Rocket On users can use their avatars at any Web site that has embedded a specific line of code into its global header. It's essentially a Flash-based plug-in or widget. For example, logged-in Rocket On users visiting a merchant's Web site will see their avatar (as well as others) walking around, chatting and interacting (even purchasing) virtual items specific to the site. Again, it has some similarities to IMVU, but it's also quite different.

Will graphical instant messaging clients eventually overtake traditional text-based ones? It's hard to say for sure, but it seems likely that with their huge earnings potential, more IMVU competitors will continue to appear on the market.

For more articles on IMVU and related topics, see the next page.

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