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Virtual worlds have had a tough time adapting to the popularity of social networks. Blue Mars, a gorgeous 3D virtual world created by Avatar Reality, has failed to catch a mass audience since it started an open beta in the fall of 2009.

But the Honolulu-based company is still looking for ways to find a bigger audience. Now it is launching the open beta for Blue Mars Lite, a version of its virtual world that requires a much smaller download before players can get started. And it now allows users to chat with their 3D avatars on Google Street View locations around the world. It’s not clear if it will work as a tactic, but at least the company is trying to respond to the market and attempt a new strategy.

Kazuyuki Hashimoto, chief executive of Avatar Reality, said the company’s overall business is not going well and it has signed up just 66,000 registrations to date for its Blue Mars virtual world, which can depict breathtaking 3D imagery that resembles that of the best video games. The company had to cut back on its staff of 30, reducing it to 10 people last January.

One problem is that the world requires users to download a lot of content before getting started. So the company has been thinking of ways to adapt. Earlier this year, Avatar Reality launched an iPhone app that let users vote on who had the hottest virtual body, just like the old Hot or Not web site did. That helped with registrations, but not enough, Hashimoto said.

Now the company has pinned its hopes on Blue Mars Lite, which is compatible with both PCs and Macs. It includes features of the Blue Mars mobile app and it integrates fully with the existing Blue Mars community and item catalog. You access your friends list and item inventory from the full PC and existing app versions.

“My strategy is to reduce the barriers to entry by having multiple entry points,” Hashimoto said.

Within Blue Mars Lite, you can now undertake 3D Tour, a new way to meet and socialize with others. You can meet in real-world locations on Google Street View and use your avatar to chat with people on places such as the Las Vegas Strip, Waikiki beach, the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge (pictured).  Users can join existing groups or create their own by finding a location on Google Maps and sharing the location link in Blue Mars Lite.

Despite the rough start, Hashimoto said he still believes that virtual worlds can advance the 3D graphics industry. World of Warcraft is the most successful virtual world, with more than 11 million paying users. Second Life also has large numbers of users, but the popularity of social networks such as Facebook is drawing users away from virtual world experiences online.

Blue Mars Lite users can personalize their avatars with clothes, makeup and other items. They can shop for thousands of clothing and accessory items, vote on each other’s avatars, post messages on each other’s profiles, and find friends or top-rate items.

The tough part about making the worlds more fun is customization and getting enough content. In Blue Mars, you can make money by creating your own virtual goods or activities within the world. The company makes money by taking a 25 percent cut on virtual goods sales, while the creator keeps 75 percent.

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