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spongebob.pngBy B.L. Ochman
The 2008 Virtual Worlds Show had the worst tsotschkes of any show in recent memory. It has long been my theory that the cleverness and value of the tsotchkes at a show is a reflection of the health of the industry. And judging by the cheap candy, pens, and mugs that dominated the tsotchkes at this show, Virtual Reality is in a slump.
The show, nonetheless, was fascinating. After all, while we may be heading toward a 3D Internet at a slower speed than expected, we are still headed in that direction.
Part of the problem is that companies involved in virtual reality are immersed in jargon and seemingly unable to provide plain English explanations of what they do. The vice-president of sales prevention of one major virtual world developer responded to my question about what they do: “We create conversations around brands.” I asked him to clarify and he said “That would be like trying to bring home the air from your Hawaiian vacation.”
Seeing my eyes glaze over, he asked “Are you even enjoying this conversation?” Well, I said, you must have an elevator pitch that explains what the company does.” He, annoyed: “I just gave it to you.”
As Eric Reuters, who covers Second Life for Reuters notes, “At one of the largest gatherings of the virtual worlds industry, the energy of platform developers, consultants, and marketers was focused on the under-18 crowd.” Because, it seems, they haven’t made the predicted inroads into the much-hyped ventures with grownup side of the corporate world.
The sameness of corporate VW efforts
What struck me is that every virtual kids world, from Brats and Barbie to Habro and Swinky basically let kids make an avatar, dress it up, play some games with it, arrange your room, buy stuff, and buy some more stuff. It’s a copycat, safe, corporate re-purposing of real world content in virtual worlds. Some social networking is available, but it is seriously limited by child safety concerns and generally allows limited free interaction.
I didn’t see truly creative solutions to engage the minds of the digital natives who will be creating the next level of virtual reality in a few years. From the kids in my life I know that kids want a different experience every time they go online. They want a challenge, and they want to be able to create videos, stories, and more.
Particularly stultifying was Barbie online, but not surprising, given Mattel’s general online cluelessness. Mike Young, Director of Mattel Brands Online said has 10 million registered users. But he wouldn’t say how many were active; how long kids spend online; or how the company tracks metrics.
And, hey, he was supposedly presenting a case study. “We have a few WebTrends tabs on the site,” he said and “we need more robust methods.” Right, a publicly traded company, responsible to shareholders and analysts, doesn’t track its stats. Please read the Cluetrain Mr. Young.
Interesting at the show:

o Metaverse Mod Squad, an avatar staffing agency for virtual worlds. “Lonely ghost towns that dot the virtual world landscape are byproducts of shortsighted marketing campaigns of the past. … in the real world, a retailer would not open a store without a sales staff. And a theme park operator would not let kids run around a theme park without adult supervision. Virtual worlds should not be any different.”
o Second Life’s new business mentoring program, Second Life Grid run by Betsy McCullen, will teach businesses how to navigate and create a public or private space using the leading 3D online virtual world technology behind Second Life™. They’ll help with research and concept testing too. About time. I plan to interview McCullen soon.
o IBM and Linden Labs have teamed up to collaborate on the creation of an enterprise-class virtual reality solution. With IBM’s already huge resources, that should yield great results.
o Paramount Digital Entertainment (PDE), expanding its presence in virtual worlds, announced that members in MTV’s vMTV network and Makena Technologies’ will be able to use the VooZoo application – short clips from Paramount’s film library.
For $1 each, and vMTV members can send each other “voohoos” – three- to five-second video clips from films including “The Godfather,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Footloose.” A version of the application has been available on Facebook since February.
o Nickelodeon announced that it is developing an entire virtual world based on network hit “SpongeBob SquarePants.” It’ll involve games, avatars and a strong social-networking component.
o Nick also announced the development of Monkey World, a social-networking and massive multiplayer game based on an original concept not tied to any of its existing franchises.