Mall of the metaverse

Pub date September 19, 2006
WriterK. Tighe

Suzanne Vega is waddling across the screen. Well, not the real Suzanne Vega but the quiet folk singer’s digital avatar on On Aug. 3, she — or it — claimed the proud position of being the first digital representation of a major-label pop star to give a concert in cyberspace. After an interview with public radio host John Hockenberry, she sings an a cappella version of her ’80s hit “Tom’s Diner,” then awkwardly straps on a guitar and plays a set for attending Second Lifers, members of the popular online virtual world.
Whoever’s controlling the Vega avatar hasn’t quite got a handle on her yet — unless the ungainly swaying is supposed to indicate that she’s had one too many. And the audience of online gamers, whose avatars you can see bobbing their virtual heads in the bleachers, barely reaches a total of 100. Some of them are also bald and unaccessorized: the avatar-attendees were instructed to remove all extraneous attachments — including hair — to reduce server lag time. But it’s a lovely sounding, intimate event all the same and fitting for Vega. Kids these days might not know her music, but the Grammy winner is renowned as the “mother of the MP3” — “Tom’s Diner” was used by a German engineer to invent the MP3 format.
The Vega concert is just the first in a series that Second Life is launching. Duran Duran, the first artists to use location shooting and Macromedia Flash in a music video, have just announced they’ve purchased an island resort in Second Life and will be the first band to perform live online through their avatars. Just think: the right code could take their hairstyles higher than Aquanet ever did. For more contemporary music fans, rapper Talib Kweli is also slated to make an online appearance. Along with violence, sex, and role playing, live concerts are finally being translated into moving pixels.
Online virtual worlds are nothing new. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) have been around since the early ’90s and are rooted in games that have been around since the ’70s (yeah, like the one with the 20-sided die). So when San Francisco–based company Linden Lab created Second Life, a virtual 3-D world (or “multiverse,” coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi smash novel Snow Crash) now inhabited by some 550,000 residents, it had a firm jumping-off point. But while other MMORPGs concentrate on hunting and killing or solving elaborate puzzles, Second Life tries to replicate everyday experiences: shopping, hanging out, scoring a dream job, meeting new people. It’s a Sims-like experience in real time.
And it involves real money. The most staggering aspect of Second Life is its economy. Users are dropping actual ducats in exchange for clothing, real estate, cocktails, and even skateboards for their virtual representations. The currency of Second Life is called a Linden dollar — L$300 equals roughly US$1. During June alone, over US$5.3 million were spent on goods and services within Second Life. The SL digital continent is the size of metropolitan Boston — that’s a lot of virtual strip malls. At the current growth rate, Second Life projects 3.6 million users by the end of next year. Big-name businesses are starting to take note.
American Apparel was among the first “meat space,” or real-life, businesses to set up shop in the virtual world. Its SL flagship store sells clothing for avatars — at around L$300 a pop for T-shirts. And of course, no AA outlet would be complete without virtual billboards of half-naked avatars. The Adidas group just announced that it will begin selling footwear for avatars. W Hotels is opening Aloft, a virtual hotel. “As the population increases, I could see direct revenue, so long as we constructed experiences that mimicked the world that is Second Life, such as a browsable record store, not just banner ads,” says Ethan Kaplan Sr., director of technology at Warner Bros. Records.
And because a captive virtual audience offers a wonderland of name-brand recognition opportunities, celebrities are starting to take note as well. “Every celebrity who presently has a MySpace profile will eventually have an avatar on Second Life. A MySpace profile is an avatar,” says Reuben Steiger of Millions of Us, whose company snagged a contract with Toyota to offer a virtual edition of the Scion xB to SL residents. (A dealership is in the works.) Imagine a world where you can walk up to Paris Hilton in a bar and buy her drinks until she starts dancing on the tables. OK, so maybe that isn’t so hard to imagine, but in Second Life you can get a job as a bouncer and throw her drunk ass out. The future is now.
In an unsurprising development for an interactive game, some users are starting to chafe at the überconsumerist direction Second Life’s taking. Recently, a faction of residents calling themselves the Second Life Liberation Army entered the American Apparel store, pixel guns ablazin’, to prevent other residents from buying goods. The “terrorist attack” wasn’t intended to scare first-world business away though; rather, the SLLA wanted the citizens of Second Life to have a vote in Linden Lab’s business operations. But maybe some good ol’ rock ’n’ roll rebellion has been beamed up along with the live concerts. SFBG