Smokin’ spaces

Technology hasn't killed collective viewing just yet

It’s often been theorized that a future full of high-tech home theater systems, mobile devices and broadband distribution will ruin the collective viewing experience, cocooning entertainment consumers in a world of personalized media choice.

That may ultimately be proved true, but it might not be as lonely an experience as anticipated.

For old-guard media giants like CBS Corp., the fast-growing online community Second Life provides the tantalizing possibility of an alternate future in which consumers gather and share entertainment experiences together online.

Since its June 2003 launch, Second Life has attracted 3.1 million registered users, all interacting in an avatar-based, three-dimensional virtual world in which they sell goods and services, hook up with other users, and even take in rock concerts.

According to Philip Rosedale — the visionary former RealNetworks CTO who created this self-perpetuating “metaverse” — one of the virtual world’s most popular entertainment draws right now is a U2 cover band, members of which perform live while piping their music directly into the computer. Carefully crafted avatars that look just like Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. further create an experience that, for some, is even better than the real thing.

Music labels, film studios and TV networks are eager to capitalize on people’s undivided attention within this virtual world, which has become legitimate enough a destination of late to warrant its own Reuters bureau chief.

In fact, during the past year, a number of entertainment companies — NBC Universal, BBC Radio, MTV, IFC and Showtime among them –have gotten into the action by “buying land” within Second Life in order to host events.

For $1,650 up front and $295 a month, these companies get their own 16-acre-by-16-acre virtual island, at which they can screen movies, conduct concerts or otherwise promote their wares.

In January, the Sundance Channel screened edgy romance “Four Eyed Monsters” to Second Life members on its branded island, coinciding with the DVD release of the pic.

Following the screening, the network rolled footage of Sundance Film Festival dailies on its island through the remainder of the month.

“This is a completely different way to speak to your audience,” says Catherine Smith, director of marketing for Linden Lab, the San Francisco-based company that owns Second Life. “It’s not a banner ad. It’s very interactive. If you can incorporate the users, it will change that relationship that you have with them.”

Although Grandma is unlikely to journey through Second Life, the community — which, if real, would be four times the size of Manhattan — does cut a wide demographic swathe. Users are 50% U.S.-based, 44% female and average 32 years in age.

Smith estimates 40 corporations, spanning all sorts of industries, have staked out Second Life territory.

Land ho!

Showtime has built the deepest presence of any entertainment company in Second Life.

In fact, with its island bulging at 300 acres, Showtime is the first entertainment company to feature a portal into Second Life on its own corporate Web site.

Since launching this gateway in mid-January, Showtime has registered 2,500 people into Second Life. The pay cabler has engineered its island around skein “The L Word,” and visitors can meet fellow fans as well as hang out at themed dance clubs, coffee shops and clothing stores.

“We see this as interactive television,” says Sibley Verbeck, CEO for Electric Sheep, which crafted the “L Word” campaign, among dozens of other Second Life-branded promotions. “You can build a ‘Lost’ island, or (re-create) the studio set of ‘Star Trek.’ Virtual worlds in general are an extremely powerful communications tool.”

Electric Sheep also developed a Second Life videogame to help NBC Universal hype January theatrical “Smokin’ Aces.” The studio offered a prize of 1 million “Linden Dollars” — coin of the realm in Second Life, which can be exchanged for real money — for the ultimate winner of a laser tag-styled game.

Even CBS topper Leslie Moonves has caught Second Life fever, introducing site founder Rosedale as part of his Consumer Electronics Show 2007 keynote. In fact, it was Moonves who said that Second Life members will soon be able to hang out in a virtual replica of “Star Trek’s” Enterprise spaceship.

Verbeck predicts entertainment companies will soon move past just using the community as a promotional tool.

“I think it will have a bigger economic impact, and I can see more consumers shopping in virtual worlds than on the Web,” she says. “It’s more fun.”

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