conduit.pngConduit Labs is a secretive new company, not launched yet, but which says it wants to build a new social network: One built around virtual world gaming, but with networking components that reflect real life, just like Facebook does for students on college campuses.

It has just received $5.5. million from Charles River Ventures and Prism Ventureworks.

Conduit Lab founder Nabeel Hyatt and Susan Wu, a virtual world games expert who led the investment for Charles River, are coy on specifics. However, they says there’s something missing in the experience of today’s most popular games, such as World of Warcraft: Interactions designed around real-life relationships.

Friends playing on WoW, but who live far away from each other, can only hang out online. They can also meet at Second Life or other online worlds and gaming sites, but they can’t go out and play a casual game of basketball on a Saturday afternoon.

Conduit Labs, based in Cambridge, Mass., wants to combine the social web of real life, as embodied in social networks, within a meaningful virtual environment that could include virtual pick-up games of basketball, or any number of other activities that friends might want to do together — karaoke, dancing, etc. It would still be online, only much more realistic.

Wu was an early skeptic about Second Life, because it didn’t offer these things.

Conduit wants, in part, to improve upon Facebook’s carefully plans meaningful social interactions on its site. Facebook features such as news feeds and mini feeds show people what their friends are up to and what their common interests are. Email notifications and pokes create an experience for Facebook users similar to a real-life community bulletin board, or pen-pal correspondences between friends, Wu says. However, most of these communications aren’t in real-time. There’s little instant messaging and no instant gratification of real communication.

The promise of the gaming angle, as proven by World of Warcraft and other online gaming worlds is that friends can interact in real-time, Hyatt explains.

Carefully designed social interactions have the potential to create the next generation of online relationships, they say. Hyatt and the other Conduit founders have a strong background in building online games and worlds, having worked on such diverse mainstream hits as Guitar Hero, Lord of the Rings Online and Asheron’s Call.

The market opportunity, Wu and Hyatt stress, has been recently highlighted by Disney’s purchase of kid virtual world Club Penguin. That site developed a paid-subscription service and virtual goods that allowed the company to grow without taking on VC funding.

In short, it’s all a little vague. We’re not entirely sure how the company can improve on instant messaging and real-time video interactions that are already possible. We do know, however, that Wu has given a lot of thought to gaming. So we look forward to following this company as it emerges.

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