Who Cries for Bizarro?
The rise of Second Life as a business tool
Randy C. Hice
I wonder what Bizarro is doing…
One of the tests of a great author is whether the characters in a book can creep into your non-reading life, and cause you to empathize with their plight, contemplate their mood and speculate on their future. One such author for me was the late James Clavell, who traced the lives of several generations of characters from feudal Japan
through the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in a series of intense books, the most renowned being the blockbuster novel Shogun. Clavell’s velvety prose wove complex portraits of characters with such startlingly vivid richness that they invaded the working lives of millions of readers by inhabiting the same daydream domains normally reserved for corpuscular beings.
Bizarro Yip hasn’t yet risen to a Clavellian level of disruption for me, but he does pop to mind now and then. His Simpsonian yellow hue, his purple Mohawk, James Bond shades and chain mail pants forged a lasting impression in my mind that occasionally pops to the forefront. Bizarro Yip is my Second Life (SL) avatar who has been my eyes and ears into a remarkable universe that is gaining too much momentum to be ignored.
In a minute, we’ll examine the possibility that you may attend conferences via your avatar, brush up on training videos in the virtual world, or attend to any one of a number of other business issues by sending your cyber-flunky in to bat for you. Several articles I came across in recent months triggered my interest in the phenomenon of Second Life, a Massively Multiplayer online “game.” Although I’m not addicted to the narcotic Second Life as many more obsessed people are, there is an undeniable coolness in being able to transport to thousands of locations, chat with characters who range from mundane to nightmarish, fly like Superman, and witness all sorts of weird behaviors that would result in outrage or arrests in the Real Life (RL).
SL is the brainchild of Philip Rosedale, former CTO for RealNetworks, and has been in existence in its present form since about 2003. The game itself is free…all you have to do is download the interface into SL, sign in, and you are assigned a boring-looking avatar. You are well-advised to run through some rudimentary skills development in the peaceful paradise of Orientation Island…kind of an Ellis Island for avatars. Once you get the basics of interpersonal relationships, communication, in-world commerce and so forth, you can roam around the first level of the game for a while. Eventually, you may be approached by an SL concierge of sorts who, for a few L$ (that is Linden dollars, having an exchange rate of roughly 270 L$ = 1 USD), will arrange transport to the wide-open spaces of the advanced level of the game. From there, you can use search terms to find what you’re looking for, such as “casinos,” “wild parties,” “movies,” “hair styles” and thousands upon thousands of other objects, places or people.
But, the first order of business for 99 percent of the players is to change the appearance of their avatar into something that may resemble them, but most of the time is not even an approximation of the RL person. In fact, it is estimated that perhaps 15 percent of the people playing the game are the opposite sex of their avatar. Who knows what that’s about, eh?
Of course, there are a fair amount of avatars whose sex is impossible to determine, or even their species. Things with furry tails, flames instead of heads and flowing, ethereal whisps of smoke surrounding some equally abstract being are common, as are millions of buff and sexy avatars. That leads us to the murky waters of cyber sex between avatars, and any casual search of the game will turn up happening locations where avatars can hook up and do things that, ah, twisted avatars do. Nonetheless, beyond the temptation of cyber-orgies, there are videos to be watched, games to be played, concerts to attend, not to mention some virtual representations of real cities (such as San Francisco) to be visited in addition to the thousands of islands, dance clubs, casinos and visually stunning havens. According to Wikipedia, “as of February 2007, the number of online Residents follows a fairly regular daily pattern, reaching an approximate minimum of 17,000 (around 10 a.m. UTC) and maximum of 35,000 (around 10 p.m. UTC). “One study extrapolates 25 million total accounts, with 150,000 Residents simultaneously online, by March 2008.”
With those kinds of numbers, you might think that SL is as crowded as downtown Hong Kong at lunch time, but it’s not really the case. Bizarro has dropped onto islands with elaborate homes, screaming boats and futuristic cars, only to find them deserted…their owners may be prowling around in the cyber universe, perhaps trying to make friends to bring back to enjoy their virtual digs later. So, what’s the catch?
If the game is free, who pays the developers, IT infrastructure, and all the other costs of maintaining a cyber universe with millions of players? The game is free, but real estate isn’t, and the Second Life land grab isn’t limited by Earthly boundaries, it’s only a function of disk space. So, cyber land is available for purchase in SL, from the equivalent of $5/month for a space to call your own to an entire island for a setup charge of $1675 plus $295/month (yes, USD!). One can build elaborate cribs to host friends or parties, and special controls in the game allow virtual force fields to be set up to bar all but invited guests.
The concept of virtual real estate is extensible to commercial real estate, and corporate America — make that corporate Earth — is discovering that any population of millions of people — or their avatars — represents huge opportunity. Marketing groups for car companies, electronics, sunglasses and a host of other goods are developing cyber storefronts to attract either marketing exposure, or the aforementioned convertible L$. Some big-name corporations such as W Hotels, American Apparel and Coldwell Banker have elaborate sites, but the invasion of SL by cyber marketers is not without challenge. According to Wagner James Au, writing in an SL blog, one corporation who developed a marketing presence was met with “sign-waving (avatar) protesters” who threatened to boycott the island they were developing. No word on whether they were met with virtual tear gas.
Au also points out that real-life companies, such as an automobile manufacturer, have a hard time competing with a bunch of creative college kids who set up SL dealerships featuring hot cars that fly through space. But, referring back to my earlier statement about “opportunity,” you can bet that major corporations will make a correction on how and what they present, and the professional creative artists in those marketing departments will soon learn that cutting-edge coolness will attract, not repel, throngs of avatars. Beyond a marketing opportunity, SL is gaining traction in other legitimate circles. Some companies use it for virtual meetings, politicians are holding “town hall” Q&A sessions, and a few universities have virtual classrooms (Stanford, Harvard, Vassar, Pepperdine, to name a few).
Why is a gathering in SL any more attractive than, say, con calls or video conferences? Why would a presentation be any more palatable in SL than on WebX, Microsoft Meeting or some similar meeting system? Why sit in a virtual classroom as an avatar resembling a Hydra?
We can start by examining why SL is so much better than using an instant messaging system for online chatting. After all, the main mode for communication in SL is via instant messaging. Let’s look at the steady rise in popularity of videoconferencing over teleconferencing, where one can see the faces of the conferees, and perhaps associate expressions and body language with the intent of statements made, or the reactions of the audience. SL doesn’t improve on the videoconferencing experience but, in the context of parroting a Real Life experience, sitting in a meeting all the while knowing that your avatar has the unbridled ability to shout “this is a drag” and then fly around the room, or even teleport somewhere less boring in the SL universe, lends an air of surrealistic empowerment to the situation.
Some companies set up virtual conference rooms in SL, and avatars come in and sit down and start watching a slide presentation, a video, or engage in group chat sessions. Of course, avatars can attend such meetings while their human counterparts sit in bed with a wireless connection, watching Oprah off to the side, and just tap away their contributions to the meeting, very unlike videoconferencing. There’s something to be said for sitting in a meeting with your avatar dressed as a flaming demon or maybe a giant raccoon (who among us hasn’t wanted to do just that?). An SL conference room is typically built by a company paying for the virtual real estate, and various tools are loaded into the environment to support presentations and such. People tend to embrace SL meetings with more gusto than conference calls because the visual stimulation in the virtual world can be something unattainable anywhere else.
Where will SL be in a few years? It’s fair to say that, if there’s money to be made, then people will find a means of making it. If that means direct revenue streams from sales of virtual and real goods online, expect to be able to swing your avatar in to chat with a sales person and see a product demo. If it’s a cool experience, you’ll do it over and over. If vendors and companies find that people enjoy sitting their avatars down to listen to sales pitches or monotonous corporate drivel, they will do so readily. “Build it and they will come.”I’m open to chatting about this, but on Bizarro’s terms. He likes to unwind by playing conga drums at a small club at coordinates 128 128 0. Come in, and he’ll play a few rhythms for you and might suggest teleporting to some island to chat. Only then will you see what I’ve been talking about, and you may agree that the line between fantasy and reality is getting much thinner.
Randy Hice is the president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.