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Next Island is one of 53 companies chosen by VentureBeat to launch at the DEMO Spring 2011 event taking place this week in Palm Desert, Calif. After our selection, the companies pay a fee to present. Our coverage of them remains objective.

Virtual worlds haven’t fared well as users migrate to social networks. But that hasn’t stopped David Post from launching Next Island. Today at DEMO, the company is formally launching an awareness campaign for its virtual world and enabling the key feature of the world that could be most appealing for users: time travel.

Next Island has been in the works for nearly three years. The virtual world opened for its first beta test  in December. The world has since grown to nearly 2,000 users and the company is drawing attention to the high quality of its 3D graphics and the sheer creativity of its sci-fi adventure themed world.

As we noted before, the enterprise is a test of whether virtual worlds have a place in the modern landscape of gaming, where most of the excitement revolves around social games such as CityVille, mobile games such as Angry Birds, or traditional console games and PC online titles such as World of Warcraft. But Post believes there are casual gamers out there who are hungry for a deeper experience than what they can get now.

“We are targeting the market we call ‘power casuals,'” he said. “What if a world existed that had the beauty and game play of World of Warcraft and yet was easy to play and had the community of CityVille?”

A number of virtual worlds that raised a lot of money have failed in recent times. The losers include There.com, Vivaty, and Metaplace.

Next Island is a sci-fi adventure paradise built on top of infrastructure created by MindArk, which has created the massively multiplayer online virtual universe, Entropia Universe. The universe consists of a number of planets such as Planet Calypso. Next Island is a new planet in the universe. Unlike other worlds, the time travel theme gives Next Island a chance to have a wide diversity of imagery. The first major section that visitors can travel to is ancient Greece. Within that sub-world, players can go on a variety of missions. Other sections will come online over time.

Next Island will be run as a free-to-play game, where users can create, purchase and trade virtual goods within the world. What’s distinct about Next Island is that users will be able to cash out, converting virtual money into real world money. That’s possible since Entropia runs its own virtual bank, which has been recognized as a real bank by Sweden (Entropia Universe is based in Sweden.) Over time, users will be able to travel from era to era and from planet to planet.

Post founded Next Island in 2008. He was a serial entrepreneur who founded and sold both pager company Page America and Cellular Systems. So he funded Next Island himself in the hopes of reviving a childhood fantasy. Each day for a brief time when he was young, starting at the age of nine, he wrote the story about the parallel universe of Elysium, where it seems like paradise, but where danger lurks under the surface. He worked on the world for eight years, but he had to wait 30 years for the technology to catch up with what he wanted to do.

The back story is that the rich people of the world buy a set of islands and then create an isolated paradise hidden from the rest of the world. One of the islands has a portal into time that can be used to visit places such as ancient Greece, which is now ready for players to see in demo form. Players will teleport from age to age. If players acquire weapons in a modern age, they won’t be able to take them back to an earlier age. They’ll have to earn new weapons and use them to hunt monsters. You’ll also mine for valuable resources and use them to make things that can be sold for virtual currency. The virtual world has a real cash economy; every transaction is tracked and reported.

Post said he waited a decade to put together this business. About three years ago, he got serious about doing a virtual world. He met the MindArk people and decided to leverage all of the planet-building resources they had already developed. He recruited  John Jacobs, who goes by the avatar Neverdie in Calpyso, to help head his development studio. Jacobs became famous in 2005 because he mortgaged his house and spent $100,000 in real money on a virtual asteroid in the Entropia Universe. He opened a place called Club Neverdie and turned it into a real business. Post also recruited other luminaries in the game industry. Post has three employees and has hired 18 Neverdie developers to build his world.

So far, Post has invested $1 million in the world. Outside investors include Loeb Partners, former Merrill Lynch media analyst Hal Vogel, Katlean de Monchy, Jon Jacobs and an unnamed banker from Citi. De Monchy will serve as the spokeswoman in TV ads and other marketing efforts. The first marketing partnership is with Y&R, where Next Island will create a virtual reality series called Avatarette.

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