Surreal estate in virtual Dublin

8 Nov 2007

Real estate tycoon or lord mayor? Call him what you will, but either way Irish ex-pat and airline pilot John Mahon built Dublin City from the ground up and owns every plot of land within its boundaries: in the online 3D virtual world of Second Life (SL), that is.

This virtual land brings in real money. Mahon receives rent on a monthly basis from both residential and business properties. It may not be enough to quit the day job but, as Mahon puts it, it is ‘a nice little earner’. In fact with his company, he now has 28 employees in positions varying from barman to DJ to tour guide.

“They are people who for whatever reason have time to commit to spending in SL. My employees range from those with physical disabilities to stay-at-home mums.”

The remarkable thing about Mahon’s success in developing Dublin is that as a pilot for Astreus Airlines, his career or background was not in technology: he just signed up for SL, walked around and decided that it needed a good Irish bar. “I felt it was missing a good meeting place where people could just get together and talk to each other in a social environment. I couldn’t think of a better way to do that than in an Irish pub.”

The Blarney Stone bar quickly grew in popularity amongst SL residents and went on to be voted the most popular pub there. As others began to build around it, Mahon decided to control this by buying an entire swathe of SL land and building the city of Dublin on it and commercialising the land.

Mahon has two Irish business clients renting from him currently: Thinkhouse PR and Tourism Ireland, as well as having done some work with Guinness and Diageo, but he doesn’t feel that every brand in Ireland would necessarily benefit from an SL presence.

“The sort of businesses I would be looking to get interested in Second Dublin would be ones that have a globally known brand but with Irish origin: you’re talking about the likes of Waterford Crystal and Bewleys. The number of Irish Americans who wander through virtual Dublin is phenomenal and that’s a big market,” says Mahon.

“You can either send them to a website or they can walk around virtual Dublin, wander into Bewleys and go ‘Hey, my mom told me about Bewleys’, or any of these other great Irish brands. That’s where I can see the model going.”

Mahon is confident that online shopping will go in this direction. He predicts that upon walking into a boutique in SL’s Grafton Street a shop assistant will be there ready to help, along with 3D images and video of the products.

When asked if he would like to extend beyond Dublin to a virtual Cork or Galway, Mahon says that ideally he would like to recreate the entire island in SL. “If I could get the backing for it I would build a virtual Ireland from one end to the other. Ireland is such a powerful brand worldwide, which is why the Irish bar worked so well. If a company wanted to market a fishing holiday we can put in a stretch of the River Shannon where people could catch virtual fish while being surrounded with ads urging them to come try it for real.”

Mahon even has his sights set on the one last nostalgic export to Irish ex-pats, where the pale moon would be rising above virtual mountains. “We could run our very own SL Rose of Tralee competition: you name it, we could do it!”

By Marie Boran