IBM (IBM) is ramping up its push into virtual worlds with an investment of roughly $10 million over the next 12 months, including an expanded presence within the popular 3D online universe "Second Life."

Chairman and Chief Executive Sam Palmisano is set to visit "Second Life" on Tuesday, following a "town hall" meeting with some 7,000 employees in China, and speak with the more than 250 IBM employees on one of the company's virtual islands.

"Second Life," where Reuters opened a bureau last month, is one of the best-known virtual worlds, with more than 1 million registered users and a well-established economy and currency. The equivalent of more than half a million U.S. dollars change hands there every day.

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IBM has already established the biggest "Second Life" presence of any Fortune 500 company. It uses the world primarily for training and meetings but has also built a simulation of the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

The company is also looking to build a private 3D intranet where it will be able to discuss sensitive business information.

It is moving to champion what it calls "v-business" — short for virtual business — just as it championed "e-business," or electronic business, during the dot-com boom.

"We always ask the question, 'if you knew 20 years ago what you know about the Web today, what would you do differently?"' said Sandy Kearney, IBM's director of emerging 3-D Internet and virtual business. "The Web took decades. This will likely take half that time."

The company said it is already holding meetings and conducting development inside virtual worlds with about 20 major clients, including telecommunications and aerospace firms, a petroleum company that wants to use virtual worlds for training and "a major grocer in the U.K." that wants to build a virtual storefront that will allow consumers to buy real-world groceries online.

"The essence of e-commerce today is built around the idea of catalogs. That's very useful, it fits with the idea of Web pages and catalog pages, but most people don't think of shopping in terms of catalogs and pages, but in terms of stores that they go into," said IBM chief technology strategist Irving Wladawsky-Berger.

A spokesman for IBM said its goals go far beyond "Second Life," although it currently has its largest virtual world presence there, and that the company eventually wants to see all multiverses integrated into a seamless whole.

"In addition to our desire to work more closely with Linden Labs, we're exploring how we can work with many virtual world players, including companies like Multiverse and Bigworld Technology, as well as open source platforms like Uni-Verse.org," the spokesman said in an email.

"IBM's ultimate aim is for inter-world integration, instead of separate islands of virtual worlds, where you cannot cross over from one to the other in a consistent way," he said.