Could virtual worlds become a new platform of choice for musicians? If Darryl McDaniels (DMC) is successful, it will be. Later this month, he will be launching DMC World, a virtual world running on the Worlds.com platform. He was at Engage! Expo along with Thom Kidrin, President and CEO of Worlds.com, to talk about what their new world might be like. One person who viewed it summarized it saying, “This is Club Penguin for Hip Hop”. That’s a cute summary, but I suspect it could be much more than that if they do it right.
The Worlds.com platform is highly scalable and one goal is to be able to have concerts in DMC world. Fortunate musicians might also get the opportunity to jam with him online. Yet what is perhaps more interesting is that DMC hopes to sell not only his own music there, but the music of emerging artists that catch his interest as well.
There are already good venues for buying music online, from iTunes to Snocap. You can find new artists on sites like MySpace. DMC World could take this to a new level.
Will DMC World have what it takes to succeed? There are various issues that need to be addressed. The client is a relatively small download, compared to the size of other virtual world downloads. Yet it is still a download and not yet browser based. On top of that, currently, it only runs on Windows. A MAC version is expected in about six months. It should have many of the other features that Second Life users have come to expect such as the ability to build, as well potentially the ability to upload and download content. Worlds.com is also part of the virtual worlds interoperability committee, so progress on that front will hopefully make its way into DMC world as well.
Additional features that are in the works include a port to mobile platforms and the ability to chat from DMC world to phones. All of this presents a further challenge to the existing models of music distribution. In essence, each artist has the opportunity to become their own technologically savvy micro-label, facilitated by DMC World. Will it be successful? Time will tell.
I spent much of the second day at Engage! Expo like I did at the first; taking notes and tweeting during the sessions then heading back to the press and speakers room during the breaks to recharge my batteries and compare notes with friends. In many ways, it was an interactive way of making sense of the conference, which seems somehow appropriate, because the most important theme to me of the second day was interactive sense making.
It started off with a fireside chat with Jack Buser, Director of PlayStation Home. Jack was enthusiastic about his subject, almost to a fault, but when you got past the superlatives and the ‘That’s a great question’ responses and when you got past the lack of enthusiasm for Home by some PlayStation gamers, PlayStation Home is really an interesting idea.
Forget for a moment the comparisons to Second Life and the concerns about being able to create or upload user generated content. The real message of PlayStation Home is that gaming is a social activity. It used to be that it took place as gamers brought their consoles to friends’ living room and spent the evening gaming together. Now, with PlayStation, you can play together over the Internet without all those incontinences of travel. Yet something is lost, all the out of character discussions of which game to play, which strategy to adopt and the spilled cans of Red Bull.
PlayStation Home seeks to bring that back, so that people can gather virtually, talk together about their plans and then launch into the game. Yes, perhaps some people still gather in living rooms. Yes, perhaps some people gather on Skype or IM to work out their strategies, but Mr. Buser maintained that the three dimensional virtual world of Home is better suited for it. He pushed this further to talk not only about planning a campaign, but also to listen to music or watch videos together. He started off by talking about PlayStation Home as a social network, instead of as a game or virtual world. In that context, Home is compelling and provides an interesting opportunity for interactive sense making.
The first session after the chat that I attended was Sally Schmidt, Executive Producer of Circle 1 Network, talking about how to ‘Tap Into the Emotional Triggers Of Tweens’. They had done a study for the top sites for engaging tweens, and came up with Club Penguin and Neopets leading the list.
Looking at what made these, and other sites engaging, they came up with their Five Cs of Engagement:
Creativity, Collection, Caring, Community and Competition. Tweens want to create their look and the environment. They want to collect virtual goods. They want to care for pets in virtual worlds as well as donate to causes or find ways of being more caring for the environment. They want to be part of a community and they want to compete at games, on leader boards and so on. Ms. Schmidt noted that different sites focused on different mixes of these five Cs.
She was followed by Ted Sorom, CEO of Rixty. Rixty presents itself as “an alternative payment system for today's online youth” and Mr. Sorom presented the statistics on why Rixty was needed. There are close to 26 million youth in our country, spending $30 billion a year. $12.8 billion is spent on education, which works out to be about $10 a week per youth. So, where are youth spending their money, and how do you get them to spend it in your virtual world?
Mt. Sorom said that most youth spend money in the form of cash at local stores or malls. Much of this is because there aren’t good options for youth to be able to spend money online. Less that 3.5% of teenagers have credit cards and only about 13% have checking accounts. Even for those that do have accounts, these accounts are typically set up and monitored by parents. Youth want to spend money the way they want without being monitored by parents and spending cash at the mall is much less controlled.
The session ended with Jouni Keranen, President of iLemon talking about International Strategies: VWs Around The World. The key message was know your audience and act appropriately. He noted that the average revenue per user (RPU) in China was about 20% of the typical RPU and that Japan had very high RPUs. He spoke about the importance of having mobile as part of your strategy in Japan and being prepared for surprising sub-cultures taking over your community.
These sessions all seemed to focus on knowing your audience, but did not talk a lot about interactive sense making.
I had to leave early for a client meeting, so I only made it to one more session.
It started off with Jesse Cleverly of Connective Media talking about Narration And Engagement In Virtual Worlds: The Future Of Narrative. It was a fascinating talk. He spoke about the importance of narrative, especially as we move into a post-television era. He said the speech he was giving was very similar to one he had delivered eight years ago at MIT and that things really haven’t changed all that much. He touched on his days at the BBC working on storytelling after television.
He talked about the importance of the story and maintained that if you get caught up in the technology, or the RPUs, you are not going to be engaging. He talked about good story tellers not changing the outcomes of their stories based on what people in the audience asked for, and those same story tellers not asking the audience to make up the rest of the story.
He talked about how film had started off focusing on the base emotions in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and only over a hundred years getting to the higher levels and suggested that perhaps it may take a long time for virtual worlds to make the same progression.
He touched on the idea of the universal stories and how stories help us make sense out of the gossip. He talked about the importance of developing the characters and choices that a character makes under pressure. Then he told a story and questioned how that story could be told in new media.
As I listened to him, I thought of Neil Postman and building a bridge to the eighteenth century. If the technology isn’t helping us grapple with the fundamental issues of life, what good is it? He was a great speaker and I appreciated much of what he said, but something didn’t seem right to me.
Mr. Cleverly was followed by Philippe Moitroux, CEO of TAATU. Mr. Moitroux spoke quickly and far from the mic. He was hard to understand, and was in the unenviable position of speaking after Mr. Cleverly. He asked the question, “Can old media be the pain-killer for new media?” It is a good question and one that I want to write more about. I think it applies very well to what is going on with newspapers. Blogs, Twitter and other online tools can provide ways to increase engagement in newspapers. It also started to crystallize my reaction to Mr. Cleverly.
Mr. Moitroux was followed by Daniel Buelhoff, Head of Business Development and Community Management for sMeet. Like Mr. Moitroux, Mr. Buelhoff spoke about people gathering in community to interactively make sense of what they were encountering in the traditional media. This is where things started taking more shape. Mr. Cleverly was talking about interactive narrative and how it was failing in virtual worlds. Yet perhaps it isn’t interactive narrative that matters but the interactive sense making, which includes reacting to narrative, that matters in virtual worlds.
I asked him what he thought about this idea and he responded that virtual worlds currently have no stories in them to make sense out of. He compared them to fancy movie theatres with no movies in them. Instead, he believes virtual worlds should have stories that can be explored, perhaps like Brave New MOO so many years ago.
A key concern for him was to have the story teller control the story. Yet when I tried to look at this from a larger perspective, it raised the underlying question. Do we believe that we control our own stories, or are we simply the victims of fate? As I thought more about it, I thought of the anthropologists trying to capture stories in the wild. Their presence and efforts to gather the stories, change the stories. Perhaps this fits to stories told in virtual worlds. Perhaps, by telling the stories, we change them. Perhaps this is part of what motivates political activism, the hope that one can change the stories.
There is much more to explore about this, but for now, I want to end with a final thought. Perhaps virtual worlds should be nothing more than great theatres with no stories. Sure, they can provide a stage, costumes, props and the like, but the people themselves come and act out the stories, just as we act out the stories in our daily lives.
Perhaps, Mr. Cleverly’s desire for the storyteller to maintain control over his own story is little different than the desire that we all feel in trying to control the stories of our lives.
How do we interactively make sense out of all of this? I’m not sure. Writing this blog post is part of the process, as will be responding to any comments or emails I receive. The discussions on Twitter and in the press room are all part of this same interactive sense making and by focusing on interactive sense making, that might even change the stories, perhaps we can come up with a better response to the engaged existentialist.
Perhaps the most interesting vendor to me at Engage Expo was Animazoo. They have a motion capture suit that you can wear which can capture a person’s motions and use it to control an avatar. Their current version is a high end, expensive device, but they are working on a consumer version which should become available around Feb 2011 for around $400. Developer’s models, which will be more expensive should start becoming available in Dec 2009.
I spent a bit of time talking with the folks involved. First, I spoke with the folks at the booth. Then, they had their connection to their lab back in England up and running, so I spent a bit of time talking with Matt the Gremlin in the UK. As we talked I thought, this would make a great interview. If we were doing it scripted and planned ahead, I could have set up something like Fraps to capture the screen. Instead, it was completely ad hoc and off the cuff. I asked permission, took out my beat up old video camera and did a quick video.
It isn’t high quality, but it illustrates, quite nicely I believe, what can be done with this motion capture suit and a little bit of software. If we could do this, using a $400 device, existing software, and no planning, just imagine what you could do with an art department creating some fascinating avatars and carefully scripting and storyboarding the action. Let’s push it a little further. Think about what you could do with a dozen people in these sort of motion capture suits; a football game between the orcs and elves; a fascinating dance party for seven year old girls, all of this coming to the consumer market. The possibilities are endless. What are your thoughts?
So, the quality of my first interview with a gremlin may not be all that high quality, but it certainly was memorable, and I’ll treasure this experience of my first interview with a gremlin.
During rough economic times, conferences are often hit particularly hard. People don’t have the funds to travel, vendors cut back on their displays, yet the information at conferences remain as valuable as ever, if not more so. Engage! Expo is no different. I’ve run into some old friends at the conference and I’ve established new relationships. I’ve picked up my small amount of swag and taken copious notes.
The first keynote was a talk by David Luner, SVP of Interactive and Consumer Products for FreemantleMedia Enterprises and Teemu Huuhtanen, EVP of marketing and business development for Sulake. They talked about the deal between their companies to bring American Idol into Habbo. There was the standard discussions about other co-marketing efforts, such as American Idol’s deals with Barbie, Dreyer’s Ice Cream, McDonalds, iTunes and Disney. There were discussions of the demographics of Habbo; heavily teen, with a strong influence in Europe and Latin America.
Yet for me, the most interesting part, and one that brought a question was about why American Idol chose to co-brand with an existing virtual world instead of building their own. There were comments about American Idol wanting best in class for virtual worlds and their belief that they were unlikely to do a better job than Habbo had already done, and the risk to the brand of a failed virtual world launch was greater than any upside opportunity that having their own virtual world might have produced. They noted that by using an existing platform, they could launch more quickly.
I view this as a good sign in the movement away from siloed virtual worlds towards a more common virtual space. At the end of the session, Ted Tagami, VP of Business Development for SmallWorlds spoke briefly about their world. They are moving even further towards better interoperability as they connect with Facebook and Bebo and prepare to support OpenID authentication.
The first panel that I attended was Virtual Worlds By The Numbers: A Look at the Market Research. Barry Gilbert, VP and Research Director for Strategy Analytics and Michael Cai, VP of Research in Video Games for Interpret also focused on the move towards interoperability. WeeMee’s integration with Skype and AIM were noted. Mr. Gilbert said they were expecting continued interaction with social networks, some consolidation in the virtual world space as venture capital is reduced during the recession, increased avatar portability, and the emergence of standardized metrics. He noted that the typical user that he was studying was in around four virtual worlds, but they are typically only active in one or two as virtual worlds seek stickiness. The number of virtual worlds the average user is in is trending down, a trend he expects to see continue.
Michael Cai’s presentation provided other interesting information. He spoke about the virtual world space as still being dominated by early adopters, whereas the gaming space has spread across much of the technology adoption curve. He spoke about research into brand preferences of virtual world participants. As I think about the current financial problems, I was struck by a screen about views on automobiles. Virtual world residents currently own cars made by Ford, Toyota and Honda, in that order. Dodge came in fourth. GM barely made the list. For cars that virtual world residents hope to own in the future, Toyota and Honda both remained in the top three, and Ford, the top American brand dropped to fifth.
Another interesting tidbit about virtual world residents is that they have a tendency to be more physically active, exercising at home or at the gym and participating in cycling, basketball, track, football and soccer. They also tended to be more socially active than the population of general Internet users.
After lunch, a different panel took up the metrics issue talking about Virtual World Metric = Measuring Engagement. This area is still emerging and most frequently people look at this in terms of time spent on a site and number of click-throughs. One person suggested that the average time on the typical website is around fifteen seconds, whereas the average time spent in a virtual world was more like ten minutes. He claimed that click-throughs averaged 1-5% in virtual worlds and only fractions of a percent on traditional websites.
Yet Dr. James M. Bower, Founder, Chairman and CVO of Numedeon, which runs Whyville, had a very different perspective. He spoke about how virtual worlds makes marketing about the product and no longer just about the brand. He spoke about information that he could provide to companies about how people interacted on a product by product basis. He had an interesting comment about twelve year-olds interacting with a product in Whyville and ending up knowing more about the product than the salespeople selling the product. He suggested that the metrics used for education are probably going to be the best metrics for virtual worlds. He noted the old adage, “All marketing is really education.”
Here, he wasn’t talking about the sort of metrics that are too often looked at in education, scores on standardized tests about material learned. Instead he was talking about metrics measuring student retention, engagement, contextualization and related ways of measuring how involved the students really are.
He suggested that as we move away from a focus on eyeballs, to a focus on eyeballs connected to brains, everything changes and that it will put more pressure on companies to produce better products. He also spoke about how whenever a new technology comes along, people tend to try and do things they knew how to do with older technology with the new technology, instead of rethinking the way the approach the underlying issues.
The final panel I attended was Parallel Virtual Worlds and the Transformation of Browsing the Web. This discussion was moderated by Benjamin Duranske of Pillsbury, and included Steven Hoffman, CEO of RocketOn. Jan Andressen, CEO of Weblin was also supposed to participate but did not make it. Keith McCurdy of Vivaty also joined the panel.
I asked about interoperability at this panel, and one of the panelists really went off on how we won’t see interoperability for a long time and how it is a bad thing for all of the virtual world providers. It turns out that by interoperability, he was thinking about seamlessly moving avatars and assets from one world to another. Instead, he suggested that we might see ‘interchangability’, the ability to import and export some information from one virtual world to another. Interchangability, he suggested, seemed much more reasonable and likely, but still not in the near term. This led to some confusion, since no one had heard the term interchangability before and it sure sounded a lot like what I meant, and I suspect many others mean by interoperability. One of the other panelists spoke about his project already supporting some sorts of interoperability, by, for example, basing text communications on Jabber. This is a topic that deserves much more discussion, and I hope to write a longer blog post about this when the dust settles.
As I wrapped up the first day at Engage Expo, I had the opportunity to speak with Thom Kidrin, President and CEO of Worlds.com. Worlds.com is about to DMC World as a hip-hop and music lovers virtual world. Like the discussion of interoperability, this is a topic that deserves a blog post of its own.
After the conference, people gathered at various bars around town. I went down to the Half King Pub and chatted with folks there. One discussion that needs follow up is one that I had with Carol Altarescu of Privo. How does their effort fit with portable contacts and other issues of ‘privacy, permission and trust’? I don’t know the answer yet, so that will have to wait for another day as well.
So, while Engage Expo seemed smaller this year in terms of participants, at least the first day seemed very full of important information. Now, on to day two.
And what about the best minds of our generation? They aren’t doing anything as romantic as Ginsburg’s friends, searching the angry gutter for a fix. No, some have been searching for ways to use technology to engage people in politics or non-profits. Others ride the subways joining blank faces beneath the pictures of smiling models. At the end of the day, they get cynical and drunk and boring someone in some sad café, or maybe these days some sad virtual world.
At their jobs, they try to find ways of separating their fellow human beings from their hard earned wages, perhaps by trying to come up with an engaging advertisement in one of these virtual worlds. It almost feels like Freeport in Neuromancer. Yet, perhaps, the joy that some people see as their hard earned wages get stripped from them in some virtual world is not unlike the joy that Sisyphus saw as the bolder rolled back down the hill.
Today, I am at Engage! Expo, a show about how advertisers and marketers can engage their audiences in virtual worlds. How engaging will the speakers be? What new insights will I come away with? Come back later and find out.