Conduit Labs: “Bored of the Same Old Social Networks, Virtual Worlds, and Massively Multiplayer Online Environments”

Here at Xconomy we’re keeping a long list of recently funded, stealth-mode technology startups that have potentially interesting stories to tell but aren’t quite ready for real publicity. It’s certainly encouraging to see so many new ventures springing up in the neighborhood. But it can also be frustrating to realize that it might be weeks or months before we can bring our readers the real scoop. Conduit Labs, an online gaming company in Cambridge, is the latest addition to the list.

Conduit announced yesterday that it’s obtained $5.5 million in venture backing from local firms Prism and Charles River Ventures. Judging from CEO Nabeel Hyatt’s comments on the company’s new blog and his remarks to a few gaming and startup bloggers, Conduit will be using the money to build out a Flash-based 3-D online world that will combine elements of social networking and what Charles River’s Susan Wu calls “casual MMOs” or massively multiplayer online environments.

So far, we know more about what Conduit’s product isn’t than about what it is. It isn’t exactly a social networking site like Facebook, it isn’t a dragons-and-dwarves massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft, and it isn’t a complicated avatar-based social virtual world like Second Life. It isn’t simply another multimedia instant-messaging system or bulletin board or wiki, either. It’s supposedly something that combines and transcends all of those. “Friends online playing together” is about as much detail as the company has yet divulged.

The vision is intriguing, but so vague that it wouldn’t really be of interest if not for the mix of past achievements among Conduit’s founders. Hyatt is the former chief operating officer and VP of product development for Ambient Devices, an MIT Media Lab spinoff that showed how small wireless devices such as the Ambient Orb can convey timely information in intuitive, non-distracting ways. Dan O’Brien and Michael Sheidow worked together on Asheron’s Call, a pioneering 3-D online role-playing game for Windows PCs that attracted more than 100,000 subscribers and paved the way for the mega-hit MMORPGs Everquest and World of Warcraft. Dan Ogles is the brain behind Guitar Hero, the 2005 Playstation2 game that completely changed expectations about home gaming consoles, requiring a new level of physical and social interaction that’s been picked up and amplified by Nintendo Wii. (The company hasn’t specified titles for O’Brien, Sheidow, or Ogles. The “About Us” section of its website merely says “We’re Dan, Dan-o, Mike, and Nabeel, veterans of a mix of web and MMO companies.”)

Conduit’s environment will emphasize gaming, but with unspecified mechanisms that promote the sort of bonding that you might experience while out bowling or shooting pool with your mates. “We want to deliver a completely new kind of massively multiplayer experience—one that requires minutes, not hours, to access and learn, and one that is as rich and social as real-world activities like shooting hoops or jamming in a band,” Hyatt blogs. No subscription will be required: revenue will apparently come from advertising and microtransactions involving virtual goods.

We’ll bring you more as soon as we’ve had a chance to speak with the principals directly. For now, the best writeup about Conduit is over at CMP’s blog on the business of virtual worlds, WorldsInMotion, which scored a long interview with Hyatt. He told CMP that Conduit expects to open an early version of its online world within six months.

UPDATE 27 August 2007, 5:00 pm: As part of my reporting for this story last week, I e-mailed two questions to Susan Wu, the Charles River Ventures partners who is working most closely with Conduit Labs. I asked her: “Why should Conduit Labs’s project be interesting to a) users of online games and/or social networks, b) followers of the Boston-area innovation scene?” Her very interesting answers just came back:

“1) Conduit Labs sits at the very compelling intersection of Web 2.0 and Massively Multiplayer Online Games. This space is one that is particularly interesting to me, because it marries the design philosophies of creating lightweight, zero barrier applications that are geared towards mass market audiences with very emotionally engaging, immersive environments. Better user experiences and new types of content will emerge, accompanied by different monetization strategies. What I am particularly excited about with regards to Conduit Labs is that they really understand a few key ideas: a) while Facebook is a superlative asynchronous social platform, there are no great synchronous corollaries today; b) shared experiences are the most powerful way to foster and build relationships, and c) like the Wii and Guitar Hero reinterpreted what it meant to experience social entertainment in a living room environment, there’s a new type of entertainment waiting to be invented using a Web-based form factor.

“2) The Boston area has long been discounted as an area ripe for consumer innovation. I think companies like Conduit Labs are proof that there are fantastic entrepreneurs and exciting ideas in the area.”

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