Is it the kiss of death when primetime shows deal with avant-garde themes? Does network TV validation have the same effect on cutting edge concepts as the Sports Illustrated cover “curse” puts on teams and athletes—a prelude to failure?
“Virtual reality” has not yet jumped the shark, but there was a chilling coincidence when both NBC’s “Law and Order: SVU” and CBS’s “CSI:NY” used the technology as a script element in episodes a few weeks apart last month. Just as the shows aired, Linden Lab—creator of “Second Life,” the preeminent virtual world right now—revealed that it had been losing users since summer.
Some chalked up Second Life’s sudden plight to seasonality, while others crowed that the decline proved the short-lived faddishness of artificial reality.
Despite the perceived economic blip, virtual worlds continue to thrive—and they promise to get bigger. Artificial communities, with personalized avatars, are moving not only into primetime TV, but also into politics, video training, education, and business environments. They are becoming part of the visual environment, and as such offer a symbiotic opportunity for the television industry.
VIRTUAL WORLD PERSONA
Fundamentally, virtual worlds resemble an immersive videogame, with a dollop of SimCity creativity. Users design avatars to represent their own presence in the virtual world; the animated figure can be a realistic representation or a fantasy form. The user controls the avatar’s movement through the virtual community, handling encounters with other avatars or with design elements in the landscape.
Drawing on advanced videogame graphic technology and broadband accessibility, companies such as Google, Cisco and IBM are setting up virtual worlds—or sites in Second Life and other artificial environments—to conduct internal business and offer customized training. E-commerce (or maybe V-Commerce, for virtual) applications are expanding. On Second Life, avatars are transacting an average of $1.2 million of business every day—with much of that buying and selling translating into activity in the “real” world.
Ever since Disney bought Club Penguin, a kid-friendly 3D site earlier this year for $350 million, venture capitalists have been wandering through the virtual world community, looking for similar opportunities.
Reuters estimates that about $200 million in investments have poured into virtual world companies during the past year, with more than 30 ventures underway to create new systems. An eMarketer study projects that more than half of online kids will belong to virtual worlds by 2011.
No wonder virtual words have the smell of real money. MTV Networks has set up its own virtual world (www.vmtv.com), which lets “viewsers” (a term for users of immersive video) interact with each other and celebrities—even insert themselves into virtual versions of several shows such as “Newport Harbor,” “Pimp My Ride” and “The Hills.”
Hence, the recent forays by CBS and NBC can be seen as opportunistic story lines into new digital territory, and also as a prelude to media giants’ movement toward branding themselves in artificial life.
LIVING IN A FANTASY WORLD
Putting characters into virtual worlds has been an entertainment staple for decades. Movies such as Disney’s “Tron” (1982) and Fox’s “Strange Days” (1995) featured plot structures that challenged the imagination—and the graphic technical capabilities of those eras.
| In-world photo of an avatar flying around Second Life.|
Today’s artificial worlds, such as Second Life, There, Kaneva and Webkinz take advantage of the improved video technology and users’ experience with online interactivity.
Predictably, the intense usage by a handful of hardcore fanatics leads to criticism that these alternative lives are delusional and harmful. Virtual worlds are for “antisocial weirdos,” one recent report said. The most-addicted users don’t have a real social life, so they substitute the fantasy world as they try to get a life, the critics say.
Another viewpoint, however, contends that the imaginative and highly social interactions in virtual worlds encourage personal innovation and exploration. Devotees who are adept with personal digital tools, including video cameras, are creating new forms of artificial life and fomenting personal expression and design.
There are opportunities for collaborative creativity, as avatars engage in digital interaction, controlled by fellow users across the globe.
Linden Labs, the company that created Second Life, acknowledges that of its 8 million registered customers, only about 540,000 “regular users” come to the site each month. Nonetheless, lots of people follow the developments of the nascent business and activity in virtual worlds. For example, Reuters has created a dedicated news bureau to follow developments in Second Life, and CNN regularly reports on virtual worlds and applications in business.
Advertisers are also salivating about the opportunity to interact with their customers in these faux-video environments. Pepsi reached 90 percent of the Virtual MTV audience about nine times each, MTV Networks President Van Toffler told the Jack Myers Media Business Report last month. Toffler also said that MTV envisions four advertising revenue streams in virtual worlds.
These include the traditional cost-per-thousand “impressions” model, and more interactive ad relationships such as avatar interaction, “viral word of mouth” and transaction-based commerce.
On the other hand, pioneers are already debating how to commercialize these artificial worlds. For example, Ron Burns of Proton Media points out in the Myers Media Business Report, “Nobody needs a car in Second Life. You can fly.”
Many signs—literally and figuratively—of commercialization are appearing. Sears, Dell, Circuit City and other companies have put up “billboards” in Second Life. Companies are setting up their own “corporate islands” in Second Life for private meetings and events. Talk about buying an island and naming it for yourself!
Among the private islands are lecture halls where, for example, a medical device maker demonstrates its latest equipment—and how to use it—to doctors (who may actually prefer a real world trip to the Caribbean in the winter for such instruction).
A FUTURE FOR VIDEO?
Whether virtual worlds are a fad or a phenomenon, their presence augurs changes for the television business—beyond the mere storyline of random TV shows.
For linear TV producers, there’s the constant issue of whether such immersive, long-form experiences pull viewers away from traditional television programming—hence the aggressive cross-platform efforts by MTV and others who cater to the core young audience of virtual worlds today.
As usual, there’s a question of standards—in this case compatibility. IBM and Linden Labs last month unveiled a plan to enable a single avatar to move into different online worlds. And Intel’s recent acquisition of software-maker Havok is seen as the chip company’s effort to allow avatars to behave even more realistically, assuring Intel a stake in virtual worlds.
More immediately, virtual worlds pose an array of public policy issues—starting with issues of privacy and security, but expanding into jurisdiction (who actually should police an artificial environment?) and the usual intellectual property problems. SL is already peppered with copyrighted and trademarked material (music, visuals and products) brought in and used by avatar inhabitants.
There are also the hurdles of bandwidth limitations, both of the transmission networks and the desktop or laptop processors used to climb into virtual worlds.
Virtual worlds offer video and communications opportunities well beyond what “CSI: NY” viewers saw last month when Gary Sinise’s detective character pursued a killer’s avatar (sometimes by flying) into Second Life, with the case continuing on the Second Life Web site.
Now that is “suspension of disbelief:” Real, virtual and otherwise.