Well, I’m back from Virtual Worlds 2007, and I have a few “take away” observations. To start:
The giants are coming! But so what? The “giants” in this case being big media companies: Disney, Turner, Viacom, et alii. At first, they seem threatening, ready to take over the virtual world space with the sheer amount of capital and audience size. But never underestimate a giant corporation’s capacity for stupidity; they are big, dumb, lumbering beasts without a clue about the real potential of virtual worlds.
The buzzphrase we heard from the media giants, so frequently we got sick of it, was “brand protection”: keeping the Disney/Turner/whatever name as unblemished and on-message as possible. And who are they protecting the brand from, one may ask? Why, from you and me, of course, with our critiques and our weblogs and our mash-ups and our ability to create our own content and our own narratives. We’re just not passive enough.
The Turner presentation was especially dumb. Their “virtual world” consists of a central setting based on their “Department of Humor Analysis” ad campaign (link has video with sound that plays automatically, don’t click it at work). In their VW, which was built using technology licensed from Kaneva, one watches episodes of their syndicated TV shows in settings based on the show. (The example we were shown was the Family Guy house.) Since TBS doesn’t actually own the property, we don’t get to interact with Family Guy characters (much less become those characters), or participate in (or, heaven forfend, contribute to) any original narrative based on the show.
Congratulations to them; they’ve used advanced virtual worlds technology to invent [drum roll] a new way to watch television. Oh, and you’re allowed to talk with other people about the television show you’re watching. Wheee.
I have no doubt Turner Media will be able to drive lots of people to their VW. I do doubt their ability to keep them there. This doesn’t even really qualify as a virtual world; it’s just a TV channel with a thin layer of virtual-world icing.
The other big-media presentations weren’t much better. The Disney “fireside chat” described a similarly top-down vision; apparently children crave a “structured experience” — and the Disney flak’s description of such, not materially different from the cattle-drive rides at the Disney parks, left the two educators we were sitting with frustrated and disgusted. There’s a big difference between structure as a framework to build on, and structure as complete lock-down control.
Anthony Zuiker’s keynote was different enough to be interesting. Unlike the other media giants, who are building their own walled gardens, the upcoming CSI:NY experiment will revolve around Second Life; users will have full-featured SL accounts, complete with the ability to create their own content, and the users will be invited to become involved in the CSI narrative, though not limited to that.
It’s a significant distinction, I think, that the other media giant activity seemed to be the product of corporate marketing department brainstorming, while the CSI experiment appeared to be driven by a single creative mind.
Now, I’m not wholly sold on the CSI business. The furries are still smarting from the rough treatment they got from the CSI franchise, and I’m skeptical that the presentation will be even vaguely accurate. (Since CSI episodes are by definition murder mysteries, I wouldn’t put it past them to use the old Matrix gimmick: that if you die in the virtual world, you die in real life. It takes a writer of the caliber of Vernor Vinge or John Varley to write a good suspenseful yarn about a virtual world without resorting to that silly canard, and very few television writers are that good.)
Still, Zuiker seemed wildly more clueful than the media bigwigs elsewhere at the conference; I’m hopeful that this experiment will be good for both CSI and SL.
As for the rest — well, why should anyone care?