A Brave New World for TV? Virtually
IF you can find him, Vincent Tibbett is precisely the sort of well-connected cultural liaison any emerging filmmaker should want to know. An employee of the Sundance Channel, he is as easily recognizable for his shaggy haircut and assertively casual attire as he is for the crowds of aspiring artists who follow him around, hoping to chat him up about cinematic trends, get him to evaluate their movies or simply score his e-mail address.
But if Mr. Tibbett seems a bit harder to pin down for a lunch date than the average in-demand tastemaker, that’s because he doesn’t exist on our plane of reality. He is an electronic avatar found only in Second Life, the popular online virtual community.
Just six months old, Mr. Tibbett is one experiment in the Sundance Channel’s larger exploration of Internet-based virtual reality, a sort of canary down the mine shaft of a new technology that may or may not take hold among mainstream audiences.
And he is not alone. In the last year broadcast networks, cable channels and television content providers have all set up camp in virtual communities, where they hope that viewers who have forsaken television for computer screens might rediscover their programming online. Some outlets, like Showtime and Sundance, are establishing themselves in existing worlds; others, like MTV, are creating their own. Either way, if the wildest dreams of some very excited technology developers come true, virtual reality might finally be the medium that unites the passive experience of watching television with the interactive potential of the Web.
If that happens, the television industry — which has not been particularly speedy in adapting to the Internet revolution — sees an opportunity not only to recover lost ground from online competitors but also to take a lead, and in so doing create an entirely new environment in which to influence and sell to its audience.
“You want to be in this because you know, as a content provider, that this is where the future is going,” said Quincy Smith, the president of CBS Interactive. “I don’t look at it as science fiction. I look at it as the future of communication.”
For decades ambitious programmers and designers have sought to establish virtual worlds like the one put forth in Neal Stephenson’s influential 1992 novel, “Snow Crash,” which imagines computer users interacting in a simulated three-dimensional world called the Metaverse. But only in recent years, as graphics-accelerator cards and broadband Internet connections have grown more affordable and ubiquitous, has it become possible even to approximate such an experience.
IN Second Life (secondlife.com), visitors to the Sundance Channel area can watch full-length feature films in a three-dimensional screening room or take part in an environmental forum; fans of Showtime’s drama “The L Word” can meet the avatars of the show’s stars and design their own floats for a virtual gay pride parade. In MTV’s Virtual Laguna Beach (at vmtv.com) inhabitants can shop at digital versions of Emporio Optic and Laguna Surf and Sport or, at the click of a mouse, arrive in a virtual version of “The Hills,” where they can then join the party at an electronic replica of the Los Angeles nightclub Area.
Pre-teenage viewers have a virtual playground to call their own too: Nicktropolis (nick.com/nicktropolis). Nickelodeon’s two-dimensional community allows children (with parents’ permission) to play virtual basketball, watch Nickelodeon shows, douse themselves in digital green slime and chat with SpongeBob SquarePants.
To a generation that has grown up with multiplayer online role-playing games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, the interfaces of environments like Second Life and Virtual Laguna Beach will seem familiar: Users create for themselves a personalized three-dimensional representative called an avatar and are then set loose to explore the world and connect with other avatars.
But it’s not just video game players who are signing up for virtual communities. Virtual Laguna Beach, introduced in the fall of 2006, claims nearly 890,000 registered users, primarily in the their teens or early 20s; Nicktropolis, which started in January, claims almost four million registered users, with a core audience between 6 and 14 years old; and the Sundance Channel’s Second Life content attracts users between 25 and 54. (The average age of the more than 6.9 million inhabitants on Second Life is 32.)
As broadcasters and media companies have entered virtual spaces, among the earliest content they have provided residents has been, not surprisingly, television programming, which inhabitants can watch on two-dimensional movie and television screens that appear throughout the world. “It’s obvious, but it gets fun,” said Sibley Verbeck, the chief executive of the Electric Sheep Company, which creates programs and content for virtual worlds. “It starts being a more social experience.”
As an example Mr. Verbeck pointed to a Second Life island his company created for Major League Baseball last summer where users could mingle during the All-Star Game and watch the home run derby. “People who came to mlb.com and watched online stayed for about, on average, 19 minutes,” Mr. Verbeck said. “Whereas the people who came into Second Life, mainly to talk to each other and be in a crowd, they stayed for an average of two hours.”
At minimum broadcasters want a presence in these virtual worlds because they know that significant numbers of their viewers are already visiting them. “We have to take our content to the community,” Mr. Smith of CBS said. “We have to take it where the users are already.”
Additionally television programmers see the games and social activities within their online communities as an opportunity for viewers — whether they are designing and selling their own fashion lines on Virtual Laguna Beach or building and wrecking cars on Virtual Pimp My Ride — to continue to engage with their brands long after the shows themselves are over.
But the television companies aren’t the only entities creating content for these worlds. In open virtual communities like Second Life, which allow users access to the underlying computer code from which their universe is built, anyone who is sufficiently handy with 3-D graphics programs is free to design amusement park rides, pirate galleons or anything else that can be dreamed up, and to incorporate them into the environment.
The proprietors of these worlds say this freedom has profoundly altered the way their users experience the medium of television. “Television has created a public opinion that we are mostly consumers and not very creative,” said Philip Rosedale, the founder and chief executive of Linden Lab, whose company started Second Life in 2003. “But that’s simply an artifact of the technology of television. If people are given the ability to co-create, to make something using the pieces and parts of media, they will do it.”
Already philosophical fissures have developed between the start-up companies offering open and unrestricted virtual worlds and the media giants that provide more closely moderated experiences.
Naturally, the people behind Second Life maintain that there is no such thing as too much autonomy. “We’re free and crazy and chaotic,” Mr. Rosedale said. “They’re too controlled.”
And the designers of MTV’s virtual spaces say that people prefer some rules and some guidance. “You just need to have the right blend,” said Michael K. Wilson, the chief executive officer of Makena Technologies, which helped to create MTV’s virtual properties and operates There, an independent virtual community (there.com). “You can’t make a comfortable world if at any time you could be accosted by somebody that was naked.”
There is at least one additional benefit that the media companies derive from their controlled environment. Just as real-world corporations like Reebok and American Apparel have established virtual stores in Second Life, so too has MTV courted advertisers to its online universe. PepsiCo, for example, set up soda machines in Virtual Laguna Beach from which avatars could purchase and drink cans of digital cola.
And in return MTV can provide its sponsors with excruciatingly precise measurements of advertising data. For example, if a real-world athletics company builds a simulated shoe store in Virtual Laguna Beach, MTV can measure how many users stopped to look at the store, how many of those users went inside the store, how many users bought a particular pair of virtual sneakers, and then how many of those users ordered the same sneakers for themselves in real life.
“It’s scary actually,” said Jeff Yapp, an executive vice president of program enterprises for MTV Networks’ music group. “It’s almost Google on steroids.”
FOR the media giants who missed out on the benefits of landscape-shifting online properties like MySpace and YouTube, virtual reality may be most valuable as a medium that can offer the combined benefits of a social-networking Web site and a video-sharing Web site, and might one day surpass both those technologies. (Tellingly, MTV developed its virtual worlds in a project code-named Leapfrog.)
“Suddenly, more than ever, these media companies are ready to innovate,” Mr. Verbeck said. “They’re trying to transform themselves into companies that can evolve with new technology.”
And some particularly evangelical advocates of virtual reality foresee major evolutions occurring in less than a decade. “The entertainment experience that people have in 10 years will be substantially interactive,” Mr. Rosedale said. “The argument that television will remain the dominant way we all use discretionary time, that is nonsense. That is over.”
But other veterans of virtual-reality development are skeptical about the technology’s potential for mass appeal. For more than 20 years F. Randall Farmer, a strategic analyst at Yahoo, has worked on numerous online communities, from Lucasfilm’s Habitat, a rudimentary 1980s-era attempt at virtual reality, to current offerings like Second Life and The Sims Online. He also contributes to a blog called Habitat Chronicles (fudco.com/habitat), where he frequently airs his doubts about virtual reality’s suitability to replace the existing World Wide Web.
“It’s not going to change the fact that the best way for me to interact with my bank today is a Web site where it tells me my balance, and I push this button called transfer, and type in a number, and it moves between the two accounts,” Mr. Farmer said in a telephone interview.
Still, Mr. Farmer said virtual reality could help programmers strengthen viewer loyalty to their shows through more limited interactive experiences. “I’m thinking more like an adjunct episode to a mystery-detective show,” he said, “where you and your friends can go in and play the major characters in ‘CSI,’ and you solve the mystery together. But those are very constrained experiences.”
Before that can happen, the virtual-world-building business has some real-life obstacles to confront. Its creators acknowledge that they need to make their worlds more user-friendly and their avatars easier to design.
And they expect to see a boom-and-bust cycle, much like in the earliest days of the Web, after which only a few providers of virtual-reality communities will survive. MTV Networks is already building another virtual community of interconnected music clubs modeled on downtown Manhattan, called Virtual Lower East Side (vles.com). CBS has contemplated the idea of creating a virtual world based on the “Star Trek” franchise.
In theory there is no reason that monolithic corporations with the resources and the technological know-how — a Time Warner or an NBC Universal — could not be among those left standing. But as the past history of the Internet suggests, it is rarely the company with the most money that rises to become the leader in an emerging field.
“There is no chance that a traditional media company can build this,” said Mr. Smith of CBS, whose network recently participated in a $7 million dollar investment in Electric Sheep. “It’s just as much about technology as it is about understanding a mass audience, and it’s naïve to assume we can just go out and build it.”
In the meantime some optimistic players in the virtual arena say that broadcast television and virtual reality need not cannibalize each other, and might someday learn to work together.
“Virtual worlds, when they’re done well, they’re taking people who watch 20 hours of television a week and turning them into people who spend 30 hours a week in the virtual world,” Mr. Verbeck said. “I’ve never been involved with a technology where you can make people say ‘Aha!’ so consistently.”