Miércoles 23 de Agosto de 2006, Ip nº 167

Hear the Music, Avoid the Mosh Pit
Por Sara Kehaulani Goo

Musician Suzanne Vega got her start in the New York folk scene, but now the 1980s star has found a following in cyberspace.

With the help of some programmers, Vega created a 3D animated image of herself, called an avatar, and she recently performed inside a world accessible only through a Web site, where other people represented by avatars attended the concert, streamed live to computers all over the globe.

As Vega strummed her guitar inside a real studio, about 100 lucky fans sat at their computers and guided their avatars into the online scene of an outdoor amphitheater, where Vega's avatar -- youthful-looking with short hair and bangs -- appeared on stage. When the real-world artist played and sang, her online alter ego did the same -- though the avatar's lips did not move. Fans heard the concert on their computer speakers and commanded their avatars to smile or move to the music.

Later, Vega answered audience questions, sent as instant messages visible to everyone in attendance.

The Aug. 3 event, organized by a public radio program, was one of the first attempts by a major artist to interact with fans in a completely computer-fabricated world.

"The response was terrific!! I am still hearing from people who were in the 'room,' friends of friends and people all over the world who were 'there,' " Vega said in an e-mail, noting that she took an active role in picking out the maroon blouse, black cardigan and white tennis shoes her avatar wore.

Marketing and record label executives say Web sites that put users into video-game-like virtual worlds are a unique way to reach out to audiences, who are increasingly spending their time and money on the computer instead of at concerts and music stores. Although still experimental, such sites offer fans more ways to interact with one another and band members directly.

The 1980s band Duran Duran has reunited and plans to perform a live concert later this month on Second Life, the world where Vega performed, on its own virtual island. A few months ago, singer and pianist Regina Spektor built four virtual Manhattan lofts where fans could walk around, hang out and listen to streaming music from her new album a month before it was released. Even fans are taking part: A group of friends created avatars of the band U2 and has put on several virtual concerts, using music from the band's real shows and mimicking every detail, down to lead singer Bono's hairstyle, sunglasses and clothing.

Other, lesser-known bands and musicians who typically have used social networking site MySpace.com to build a following are also turning up on Second Life and other virtual worlds, such as There.com, to showcase their music.

"A virtual world brings something to the table that a Web site doesn't -- it's building a more immersive experience. . . . You kind of lose yourself in it," said Ethan Kaplan, director of technology for Warner Bros. Records, who said he has played around with Second Life for years. "It's really cool and a lot more fun and creative than just putting a MySpace page up."

Musicians are increasingly using the virtual world to hold live concerts, at specific times and dates, or listening lounges where their music plays when an avatar pays a visit. The virtual world provides a rich and colorful environment similar to computer-animated films like "Toy Story," only a notch less sophisticated.

Users control their avatars by clicking on arrows or moving the mouse, but the movement and appearance seem a bit slow at times. Unlike the real world, though, avatars can fly around or beam themselves instantly from beach to urban environment. Savvy avatars can even record an experience on Second Life and turn it into a short movie or music video, many of which are posted on online video sites like YouTube.com.
Second Life's basic membership is free after downloading software from the Web site, http://www.secondlife.com , which provides tools to create an avatar. The site, owned by privately held Linden Lab of San Francisco, debuted Second Life in 2003 and makes money by charging a monthly fee to purchase virtual land and build a house or other structure on it. Land starts at $9.95 a month for a small lot, but for a band to set up a location to hold a concert with fancy details such as a stadium will cost at least $10,000, a Second Life executive said. Most of the cost goes to programmers who design the 3-D environment.

Second Life has more than 400,000 registered members. That's tiny compared with the millions on MySpace or other social networking Web sites, but Second Life is growing by about 10 percent a month. What's attractive, musicians say, is that the rich environment sucks people in -- sometimes for hours, compared with mere minutes spent at ordinary Web sites.

The virtual world has generated attention from retailers and marketing firms, which see it as a way to experiment with new products. Hip cotton clothier American Apparel set up a virtual store on Second Life in June, where people can spend real money to buy T-shirts for their avatars, and several other online designers sell fashionable jeans, tattoos and even hairstyles. Next month, Starwood Hotels plans to open a virtual loft-style hotel on Second Life where avatars can check in a year before the company builds the real thing in the real world -- or "RW," as people in the virtual world call it.

"There's elements of gimmick to it," said Lucian James, president of Agenda Inc., a brand marketing firm based in San Francisco. But "the whole interplay between online and offline is something people that Second Life is targeting don't have a problem with," he said. "With the online-offline divide, they see it much less as a gimmick than as a real thing."

The concept is attractive to a music industry looking to woo a new generation of fans who are used to interacting online. "There are no more music videos -- MTV doesn't show them, so we decided wouldn't it be cool if you could create an experience in a virtual world where you allow the user to be part of the music video with their friends?" said Reuben Steiger, president of marketing and consulting firm Millions of Us, which works with music labels to develop a virtual-world presence for artists.

His team built the Manhattan lofts for singer Regina Spektor and was surprised by the response. "There were parties around the clock in these lofts. It began to attract people who had never heard of Regina, and it wasn't overt marketing," Steiger said. "The more important thing was these were cool environments where people were meeting people they wouldn't have met before."

One drawback is that avatars can't keep up with humans' real-time pace of facial expressions and gestures. In Vega's performance, the virtual guitar would not appear on cue and, at first, appeared to stick out of her elbow. The number of attendees at some concerts is limited because crowds take up too much processing power. Sometimes, planners of virtual-reality events ask attendees not to bring too many accessories, such as big hairstyles, because they take up too much bandwidth.

"It's a way to experiment with image, mostly," Vega said. "It will be great when the avatars are more expressive, when they can 'speak,' have facial expressions. If you could shape-shift even during the performance -- I could become a buxom blonde for a minute and then return to my original form -- that would be fun."

Despite the tech glitches, many participants said there's an experiential quality that feels very real.

"There's a quality that doesn't exist in any other medium," said Bill Lichtenstein, president of the company that produces "The Infinite Mind," the radio show that put on the Vega performance, built a radio booth on Second Life, and plans to broadcast more interviews and performances. The virtual world, he said, simulates the real world in a way that tricks the brain into thinking it's real. "Sitting there in the audience, waiting for Vega to start, you got this feeling -- a sense of excitement."

  21/08/2006. The Washington Post.


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