Cyber sites attract millions of users

CANNES — Real-life reps rolled onto the Riviera Thursday to discuss virtual worlds and their role in the digital future. In a series of panel discussions, Mip TV delegates learned you can buy your avatar anything — from a virtual island to a virtual pair of jeans. You can even pour your cyber clone a virtual drink.

In a session called “Virtual Worlds & Next Generation Media,” Linden Labs founder and Second Life’s creator Philip Rosedale unleashed his avatar self on-screen, while discussing the possibilities of this new platform.

Second Life boasts a virtual Swedish embassy, a branch of ABN Amro, a news service from Reuters and music from pop band Duran Duran.

“All great new inventions start with whimsy, fantasy, imagination,” Rosedale suggested. “The thing that really got television off the ground in the early 50s was dressing people up in flamboyant clothes.”

According to Rosedale, some 30,000 people sign up per day to the service and a million users a month frequent the site.

Rosedale urged players to move away from traditional perceptions of the media and what audiences want.

“We believe people wanted passive entertainment only because that is all that was on offer to begin with,” he said. “People spend about 30% of their time on the site being active, building things. Everyone had better reflect what the nature of media is and what it’s going to be.”

In a follow-on session, “Virtual Worlds and Avatars: What Do They Mean for the Future of Media Brands,” the audience was introduced to virtual babies, a concept and business proposition, created by Bas Verhart of a Dutch company called Media Public Development.

“Our initiative is to ask what it would be like to raise a virtual baby together,” explained Verhart. The Eecky site launched in March 2006, boasts 640,000 users, and the busiest H&M store in the Netherlands.

Users can, for example, own a talking virtual cat.

“It’s fun if you are eight. But if you are 18 and go to work for the first time, maybe it’s great to have a baby (called an Eecky) with one of your colleagues,” he said.

The company is currently looking into launching in the U.S. where it anticipates three million to six million users.

Fellow panelist Reuben Steiger, CEO of U.S.-based Millions of Us, told attendees that one third of the Fortune 500 companies are now customers of Second Life (where he used to work in business development). His idea is to help brands create “experiences” rather than traditional ads in order to reach consumers through their virtual activities.

Second Life now has 5.7 million users overall, up from only 200,000 a year ago.

According to Steiger, his own clientele is growing 25%-30% a month.

The movie industry has started to pay attention.

Fox Atomic has built a virtual island in Second Life, recreating the Fox back-lot to entice users to sample upcoming movie releases. Users can not only hang out on sets but also create movies based on their experience. They can even make a film in Second Life based on an upcoming movie, and if a winner, enjoy a “real” trip to Costa Rica.

“People say groups of millions of users will never make ‘Titanic’,” said Rosedale. “But from the most viewed movies of all time on YouTube, most were created by users.”

Finally, BMW’s Jens Monsees explained his company’s presence in the virtual world. “In 1965, we needed three spots to reach 80% of the U.S. population. By 2004 it was 117 spots to reach the same amount of people, which is why we also have to be active with these below-the-line channels.”

However, 95% of the carmaker’s media budget continues to flow into traditional channels.

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