For a landlord, meeting the tenants for the first time can be a tense experience.
"They are expecting to see a greedy land baron," Ailin Graef says as she looks around a conference room filled with a hundred or so people who participate in the virtual three-dimensional world known as Second Life.
In that world, Graef is the richest person, with holdings worth $200,000 in real-world money. That figure would be chump change for The Trump, but it's impressive if you consider that Graef started out with a $10 investment a year and a half ago -- and turned virtual real estate into real money.
Her wealth and business acumen have made her unpopular among some of Second Life's inhabitants. At the conference, at least one of those detractors was disarmed when he met the slim, 32-year-old Chinese-born woman for the first time.
"Every time I posted something on the forum, he would post 'That doesn't make sense,'" Graef says. '"Yesterday, he met me for the first time, and said 'I'm sorry, I will never do it again.'"
Second Life is reminiscent of online role-playing games like World of Warcraft, but instead of centering around incessant monster-slaying, it's about creating an alternate life for yourself in a world where you can build anything you can imagine, if you have the skill.
Graef, who lives near Frankfurt, Germany, started out making money in Second Life by creating items like clothes, which people would buy from her to dress up their game-world bodies, or "avatars." But she found, like many real-world business people, that real estate was where the money was.
Many players of the game (or, perhaps more accurately, visitors to the world) want to build a house -- fulfilling the American dream in a fantasy, as it where. To do that, you need land, and that's where Graef comes in.
She started plowing her earnings into plots of land, and eventually began to buy large chunks of it from Linden Research, the company that runs Second Life.
Each chunk is 256 meters by 256 meters of unformed land, as if it had just risen from the sea. She employs people to shape that land into an attractive facsimile of the real world, with hills, trees, and streams. Then she gives it a name like "Ellis Island" or "Oslo" and divides it into lots which she sells or rents out.
So what's the secret of her success? Well, for one thing, she now has enough money to outbid other comers for new land. Secondly, she and her husband have "very specific and profound knowledge of the value of property," says Guntram Graef, Ailin's lanky husband and business partner.
That's much the same advantage that real-world real-estate brokers seek to establish, but the similarities can be deceiving.
"It's very different from real-world real estate," Guntram says. "It's more like brokering computing resources."
When Linden Research sells "land," it installs more computers to simulate that area of the virtual world. In effect, the Graefs are buying computing power from the company and reselling it. One way of putting it is that Ailin owns a virtual area twice the size of Central Park; another, that she pays for 90 servers at Linden Research.
Some players are resentful that the mechanics of real-world capitalism are being replicated in Second Life, much like early users of the Internet were dismayed at its commercialization, but Ailin Graef makes no apologies.
"Capitalism in the real world is also not always fair," she says, adding that those who want to escape that would do better in other fantasy worlds, since Second Life supports business and commerce by design.
So what about that $200,000? Well, the Graefs could probably not cash out their holdings all at once without crashing Second Life's real-estate market, but rents and sales provide a stream of income large enough that they have been able to scale back on their real-life jobs. She teaches part time, he's a computer scientist.
Their Second Life income also supports a little boy in the Philippines through a sponsorship program.
"When coming to Second Life I wanted to explore how real this virtual reality actually is. Real in terms of real effects on real people," she says. So the little boy, whose name is Geo, has become one of the first people who's supported by a virtual real-estate business.
asap contributor Peter Svensson is an AP technology writer.