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Jan 182007
 

SASLA

OK yet another post on Virtual Worlds, I know, but I will get round to Joost and YouTube TV channels and so on soon. Being involved as designer/developer in several Australian launches into Second Life in the next couple of months I am sensitized to entertainment or service brands entering virtual spaces and in the last couple of days MTV and NBC have shown more faith in MUVE and their inherent social network by launching some phase two type initiatives. Then there is Sears and Phillips design who are going a completely different route. First though:

vNBC (Virtual NBC) are promoting the film Smokin’ Aces with their Second Life project S.A.S.L.A (Smokin’ Aces Second Life Assassin). I have been trying to get to the game trailhead for a while but it seems to be doing some SL geoIP detect (seems to be for US folk only – which will be a major issue, unless it is somehow in synch with the national film release?) – so not available and with other inworld work I will report first hand later. A quote from the opening page and some of their game rules are enlightening which suggests a little ARG (spread across sims), shoot-em-up and the usual psychological paradoxes ones gets in SL:

Beginning January 17th, players can join Smokin’ Aces: Second Life® Assassin by visiting the Nomad Hotel in Second Life® to pick up game instructions, a hitlist, and weaponry. Think you can smoke Buddy “Aces” Israel? First, you gotta rub out the competition.

Hunting

  • Targets: The player begins with a contract for 5 hits. The hits are other players in the SASLA game—anywhere in Second Life®. As long as a player is wearing the HUD they are considered actively participating in the game. While actively participating in the game, a player’s location is reported to anyone with that player on his or her hit list. This report will not provide exact X,Y,Z coordinates within Second Life®, but will instead provide the sim name, which narrows the location down to a 16 acre square. When the target is located the two players engage in combat.
  • Contracts: Each player will begin with five potential hits. After a hit is accomplished, the assassin will assume his or her prey’s hit list (in addition to their original targets)—giving them more potential targets.
  • Power-ups/downs: Power-ups are available by gambling on the slot machines in the Nomad Casino. Players use their points for chances to win additional weapons and power-ups. Examples may include Stealth Mode (invisible to other players’ maps), Bonus Name (gives the user an additional online target), Homing Shot (Heat seeking bullet), and Shield (may take 5 direct hits before being “killed”).
  • Virtual Weapons: Will include various munitions, including, but not limited to: Machine guns, handguns, chainsaws, and long-range shotguns.
  • Death & Reset: A player’s current day bounty will reset back to 100 points when killed. Players must either re-register (at the Nomad Hotel lobby desk or at recharge locations throughout Second Life) while wearing their HUD to be “revived” and rejoin the game with a new set of targets. Players keep all accumulated weapons, but lose all power-ups or power-downs when killed. Dead players wearing the HUD will be reminded with a whisper to re-register.

Bounty

  • Game points are acquired by defeating targets, amount of time spent playing Smokin’ Aces: Second Life® Assassins, and by inhabiting the Nomad Hotel or Virtual NBC Headquarters.
  • Each player will start with a 100 point bounty. With each hit accomplished, the assassin will gain his/her prey’s total point bounty, the addition of their hit list, their weaponry, and all of their power-ups. Active time spent playing the game, and active time spent in Smokin’ Aces Headquarters and Virtual NBC Headquarters will also increase a player’s bounty.
  • If a player is “killed”, their current day’s point bounty will reset back to 100 points and they will start from scratch with the game’s default weaponry.

vMTV. Outside the SL environment we have MTV who seem to be happily ploughing ahead on the there.com platform and a new world created based on ‘The Hills’ TV show. I reported first hand about Laguna Beach Virtual World back in Sept and I was a little dubious of how this would progress being a closed world, almost the equivalent of a couple of SL sims. The 2nd outing seems far more integrated with the show and avatarorial representations of characters will role play and invite you into the ‘story world’. So it seems I have been proven wrong about the walled-garden nature of this, by MTV’s statistics at least, from this Hollywood R report about their second property to be delivered on the platform:

The launch of “Virtual Hills” follows and is an extension of MTV’s first virtual reality community, “Virtual Laguna Beach,” which launched in September. Bostwick said that virtual community has 350,000 registered users, but more importantly, a high level of engagement. In the past week, the average time spent “in-world” per visit reached 46 minutes per user, without any on-air integration.

Now it seems sometimes that vanilla virtual spaces, being open and void of goal and game, is very attractive to large numbers but I still think that Second Life and Linden Lab are losing the 90% of those who try it simply because it is so ‘directionless’ for many. It will be up to entertainment brands I believe, to stretch their professional muscles and lead the way for a sizeable potential MUVE community. Endemol have made a start along with NBC and MTV now. The BBC radio thing was not IMHO a good use of the environment the same as most of the commercial brands (who use it for external PR). There are exceptions such as those who are now really starting to look at collaborative product design combined with customer relations – such as the recent Sears/IBM initiative. Phillips were ahead of Sears in this as they are already down the road with Rivers Run Red in creating a audience centric design development presence in Second Life – as reported by their own news center. This is a really interesting space to me as brand driven collaborative design, drawing in audiences to contribute. Not in the wild west YouTube ‘any-old-rubbish-will-do” mode, but a mature and structured design methodology.

So both the TV and the design initiatives are starting to feel mature – well there are lessons being learnt very quickly in these MUVEs as most are open access and as soon as you TP into the areas you immediately pick up what works and what doesn’t – and that learning is open to all. I will leave the final word to Matt Bostwick, senior vp franchise development at MTV, who is also pretty bullish about the road ahead for them, I suppose because the there.com platform really hits their demographic target fair and square.

“We’re going to do a whole series of integrations with content and shows,” Bostwick said about future virtual realities tied to MTV’s shows. “Each is going to establish a new piece of geography or subculture.”

Posted by Gary Hayes Copyright 2007

Dec 062006
 

The Relentless March of Channels and Formats into Second Life

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Rather than just referring to the many standard press articles about the growing number of companies or formats that are setting up in Second Life (the media’s favourite MUVE at the moment) I have been ‘living it’ so to speak. My inworld blog JustVirtual provides an inworld perspespective, my avatars POV, of close encounters with the outside world’s ‘brand immigrants’. They are indeed seen that way by many residents, not disimilar to any alien brand entering a real ‘developing’ world. The recent companies include NBC, Philips Design, IBM, Reuters, Endemol and others that suggest that the next generation of entrants are moving in, with a far more robust and serious vision than the first wave who were just pushing product.

I can’t break the 4th wall in my other ‘fictional’ blog, I know strange, so I thought I would comment on two recent events in Second Life in 3rd person. The first is the preliminary days of the Virtual Big Brother and the second is Second Life’s most attended inworld event, the switching on of the Christmas lights in Rockefeller Plaza sponsored by NBC.

Big Brother Begins

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With these new entrants we are seeing a move to second gear, a shift in the maturity of the platform. Not technically (it still falls over an awful lot) or from a business model perspective (subs are still in the low 100k’s vs nearly 2 million registrants) but a web 3.0 paradigm shift – using the environment for quite practical and engaging services. I personally use Second Life (and other MUVE’s) for educational and creative purposes so I am probably already ahead of the curve. But onto to show. Big Brother selected its final 15 contestants (pic below) and I covered much of the lead up in this post. Most of the ‘housemates’ are women, I suspect because the producers are mostly male (I wonder how many of the females avatars women have a real world male driving them? We shall see.) I was actually on the last final 60 shortlist, but being able to commit to 8 hours a day online for the whole of December was impossible for me, so I didn’t pursue.

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A couple of friends are in there and already it is really interesting to see how the virtual Big Brother is becoming even more compelling than the real one! As well as the traditional backstabbing, personality differences or supportive housemate interactions (remember this is real people talking/communicating with other real people) all involved are are allowed to communicate to and lobby the many hundreds of passing/visiting ‘audience’ members. This ‘conversation’ is very engaging for those involved, the audience is resontating with the programme, or rather with the ‘experience’ – because this is no longer pre-packaged or controlled reality ‘video’.

For the audience inworld this is belonging to, and being part of the ‘game’. Lillani Lowell (my current vote and friend leading up to this event) gives an view down this particular rabbit hole for those who are not in Second Life (or likely to be) in her insightful updated blog from inside the house (the equivalent of the diary room I suppose – but here we get to see all entries). The odd but also thrilling part of the experience is being able to go and talk to the ‘stars’ of the show, whenever you want. They are there 8 hours a day ready and willing to ‘interact’ with you, albeit just to get you on their side perhaps, secure your vote, still it beats, hands down, an SMS into the void that we get with most so called ‘interactive’ shows. It will be very interesting to see how Endemol adapt to and learn from this process, this is a really exciting experiment as games/tv and online social neworks collide. Will they copy elements from this evolving format out into the rather stale ‘real world’ version? Perhaps not, as this is after all a self contained hybrid form which is best left to grow and learn to stand on its own feet.

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Above a group of loyal fans of Lillani (a talented scripter and builder) discuss the challenges ahead – in this Big Brother the housemates make things, complex 3D builds for charity. It is easy to appreciate the benefits of a this very diverse audience being used for these kinds of social experiments, game/tv formats. This is web 2.0 meets ‘TV form’ meets ‘games’, all evolving before our very eyes. It is also about game psychology, potentially interesting passive video generation and definitely about immersion for those involved. This particular version of the ‘show’ is thankfully nothing like the ‘real’ big brother, but it needs only the brand really to garner interest. The exciting thing is, it can and will go a lot further and I suspect there will be many other TV ‘formats’ and channels licking their lips. This is a really cheap way to pilot and user test web/tv/game shows after all. The ironic thing is though that this will likely gradually become the format for the masses over the next few years rather than the return to the traditional linear video route.

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A Virtual Christmas

The next event is one that starts to show the way forward as regards ‘merged media entertainment’ as I call it. The NBC virtual christmas was synchronised with the real event in the real New York, there was a virtual camera inworld streaming the virtual event onto the web and there was real TV news reports covering the inworld going’s on plus – a live band playing into the environment. My inworld post ‘Virtual Christmas with NBC’ gives an insight into the experience with far more images, for the 1000+ avatars across 18 or so duplicated sims – second lifes largest inworld event.

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So TV, web 1, 2 and 3, virtual world, live concert and outdoor all mixed and mashed together. I found myself checking nearly all my blog categories for this one! Another important part of this event was the sympathetic branding in the environment. It wasn’t in your face, it felt part of the experience particularly as the incredible build of the Rockefeller plaza and tower was copied down to the finest detail. Aimee Weber and Bedazzle Design are now experienced developers who themselves are old residents and have empathy with residents. This is critical to the future of these spaces. Better films are made by filmmakers who love watching film, games by games players, music by musicians who love to listen to a variety of sounds and virtual worlds by those who inhabit them. No brainer really.

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Above we can see the branding which didn’t spoil the experience for those waiting for the switch on of the christmas lights. The over representational build, the vane attention to duplicating every detail of the real world is not to my ‘particular’ taste but I can appreciate the ‘craft’ and stupendous effort. I think the real reason we are witnessing these 2nd generation ‘build and brand’ combinations is to draw more audience. The more cloning of familiar real world spaces the more tempted to enter, will be those normally reticent in entering MUVEs, virtual worlds and MMORPGs. I also think the more they see (in posts like this even) familiar brands the more comfortable they will be in taking the leap. The familiar chant of ‘get a life’ generally come from those who dont understand these 3D social networks, so now that sustained business models (millionaire Angshe), bona fide identifiable brands and big TV formats are taking root I am sure they may at least want to understand. Its going to be an interesting Christmas 2006.

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Posted by Gary Hayes ©2006

May 062006
 

Great to see my old friend Jon Dakss now running the iTV roost at NBC New Media. Jon was a pioneer in interactive development when he introduced me and the BBC to Watchpoint’s Storyteller a few years ago. Storyteller was something ahead of its time (still) as apart from the basic single screen multi iTV format authoring it had unique video tracking hotspot and non-linear narrative engines built in. Jon is also a very nice chap and wonderful to see the widening of NBC’s strategy into cross-media. He was recently interviewed in depth by Tracy Swedlow for ITVT (where I quote from) and talks about something that sounds remarkably like Gold Rush 😉 (Mark Burnett’s US wide treasure hunt I posted about in Alternative Reality TV a couple of weeks ago). Here is Jon talking about “Treasure Hunt”

I think you’re going to see us be leaders in all those spaces. NBC Universal Television CEO, Jeff Zucker, recently announced that there’s going to be a large initiative within NBC, called TV360. It’s effectively a way of saying to production companies, to studios, to advertisers, that we’re no longer thinking just about what you see on your TV screen, when we think about a show. Everything is going to have a package associated with it, in which there will be a VOD component, a mobile component, and an online component. And it’s going to become truly part of the DNA of how NBC programs its shows.

Just to give you one example of how the TV360 strategy is going to work: this summer, we’re going to be launching a show called “Treasure Hunters,” which is unparalleled in scope, compared to anything that’s been on television, before. Picture it basically as “National Treasure” and the “Da Vinci Code” and the “Amazing Race” all rolled into one. The show basically follows teams that are searching for a treasure that’s worth millions of dollars. They’ll use historical secrets and codes and things like that, plus compete in all sorts of physical, strenuous challenges across all different types of terrain and landscapes, in order to find a hidden treasure. The show’s going to have its own treasure hunt online and via mobile that will be integrated into the linear part of the show. Viewers at home will be able to participate: they’ll have clues they’ll need to find and puzzles they’ll need to solve. There’s never been anything like it before on television.”

Seems ‘360’ is back in fashion, the BBC have been using it for many years but I wonder if mobile, online and TV is truly 360. Here is a slide from a BBC presentation I did back in 2000 that attempted to illustrate 360 thinking, in a very simple way…

CM ©Gary Hayes 2006

In those days narrowband was still significant but I included print, games, dvd, personal TV, PDA and the catch-all non-existant platforms. There will never be a truly 360 service (although Da Vinci is getting close!) – some services gradually get to 360 degree by degree – but surely linear TV, websites and mobile phone are what…140 degrees or something? Add the physical world into the mix and we are getting somewhere but more importantly add in user content. The definition of cross-media is often aimed at producers pushing content through multiple platforms rather than ‘receiving’ content through multiple platforms. That back channel is a critical part of truly rounding the circle that many producers miss.

Back to Jonathan who is now Director of Interactive TV Product Development at NBC Universal – it looks like a cool gig and the Technology Growth Center sounds like a real step in the right direction, helping NBC develop truly unique services

“I think that, in many ways, speaks to that TV360 concept that I mentioned earlier. You’ll be seeing an interactive component, an online component, a VOD component, a mobile component and so on offered in conjunction with all major programming–not just with unscripted programming, but with dramas and comedies. Those things will just become part of the fabric of a show. I think our senior management understands the power that adding interactive and multiplatform components to a show can have, both in terms of ratings and in terms of appeal to sponsors.

Posted by Gary Hayes ©2006

Feb 282006
 

Thanks to Lost Remote for highlighting the sparks starting to fly between traditional media (NBC) and web 2.0, participatory, social network, user generated content media (YouTube). Twice in a week NBC have put the pressure on YouTube to remove items placed there by viewers that originated on NBC. The first Lost Remote “Lazy Sunday” item from last week demonstrates where the eyeballs actually are:

So you’d think NBC would be grateful to YouTube for providing some of the best viral publicity in the history of TV? Nope. Last week, YouTube said NBC asked them to pull the copyrighted clip off the site, and they complied.

We can expect to see much more of this shifting audience sands as they drift from scheduled media (or perceived as establishment media) and re-distribute, filter, highlight where it previously wasn’t – in on-demand, sharing portals. The second brush reported by CBS news happened yesterday after the real ‘rain man’esque’ story again ended up on video broadband portals.

The “Evening News” wasn’t the only place the story got heavy play. It exploded on the Web, with CBSNews.com featuring McElwain on the homepage even through today and the blogs buzzing about the “incredibly powerful” story. Many of the blogs weren’t linking to Steve Hartman’s story on CBSNews.com, however, which featured the full video of his story. Instead, they were linking to YouTube, which bills itself as “a consumer media company for people to watch and share original videos worldwide.” Someone had uploaded the “Evening News” story to Youtube, complete with Bob Schieffer’s introduction, and it became the most viewed video of the week. At last check, more than 1 million people had watched the “Evening News” piece there.
One might argue this is a good thing for CBS News, since it gets the “Evening News” in front of a million people, many of whom don’t watch the program. But it also raises copyright questions that have not gone unnoticed. CBS News, after all, would love to see that million people head to its own site, not least because increased traffic means increased advertising revenue. NBC recently saw a similar phenomenon with its “Lazy Sunday” clip from Saturday Night Live, which became a viral hit on the Web. NBC’s lawyers eventually forced YouTube to take the “Lazy Sunday” video down. YouTube wrote the following on its blog: “We know how popular that video is but YouTube respects the rights of copyright holders. You can still watch SNL’s Lazy Sunday video for free on NBC’s website.”

So how is this amazing transition to democratised on-demand going to pan out? What we have is a dying scheduled environment occassionally putting out some interesting fragments of content that millions want to see and share through more and more trusted broadband video-on-demand portals. The real friction seems to be the fact that the scheduled commercial broadcasters would rather have those millions flocking to their ad rich sites to download the items (pre or post tx). But that strikes me somewhat similar to the difference between the numbers you have flocking around the ‘cheap’ bargain bin, sale stores in the mall vs those few who mingle in the up market parades looking for some unique items. What we are also seeing is a frustrated jealousy on the part of the traditional aggregators against those video portals they see I suspect in a similar way the record companies saw the likes of MP3.com and napster a few years ago. The long tail means audiences are moving like ants around media, picking up morsels here and there. It also means like ants, you will find it more and more difficult to get them all to stop and pay attention at the same time. Enough late night metaphors. Expect to see more than sparks in this amazing year of transition – a few fires will spring up, the strange thing is we know already the ones likely to get burnt if they stand in the line of fire.

Posted by Gary Hayes ©2006