Conduit Labs, a stealth startup that is building a mix between social networks and "immersive online gaming", today announced a $5.5 million Series A investment from Charles River Ventures (CRV) and Prism VentureWorks. Unfortunately we weren't able to get any screenshots of the product, but the promise of a totally new form of social network product intrigued us.

According to Nabeel Hyatt, Founder and CEO, the rise of social networks and virtual worlds has also left "a huge gap in the current experience". Conduit Labs believes that gaming is the way forward. The company is employing people from both the Web and Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) Gaming worlds. The team already includes some of the developers behind Guitar Hero and Rock Band (two successful social gaming products) plus Asheron's Call and Lord of the Rings Online (large scale MMOs). In an introductory blog post, Nabeel implies that what they're building is similar to Club Penguin, a virtual world for kids sold to Disney recently for $700M.

Next Generation of Social Networks

Is this, as one of the investors said in the press release, where the Web is headed? I asked Susan Wu from CRV, who has joined the board of directors at Conduit Labs, why Conduit Labs represents the future of the Web. Susan has evaluated "many dozens" of online gaming and virtual worlds startups in the past year and her blog reality.org is one of the best sources of information about those topics.

Susan told me that "this space is new and undefined." She said "it's not about making MMOs more casual or putting an MMO in a browser or grafting casual games to Facebook. I've seen a lot of MMO folks pitch Runescape 2.0 and I've seen a lot of casual games folks pitch Miniclip 2.0, but I believe that the next major innovation to come out of this sector is going to be neither of those." Conduit Labs, she said, is aiming "to build a new type of social entertainment product that combines the best of multiplayer online gaming and social networking."

According to Conduit's Nabeel Hyatt, the product's interactions will feel much more like the types of social games we play offline. Just as Facebook augmented offline social networks by taking the relationships Harvard students had and building on and complementing those pre-existing interactions online, the same thing will happen with social online gaming. Nabeel said that it'll be everything from the hoops people play on weekends, to dancing at night clubs, to Guitar Hero and the Wii. But in a way that's integrated with the social lives that we live online.