X|Media|Lab Melbourne: VastPark and Dotman

Dotman: Dr David Liu, Founder and President, Cyber Recreation District, Beijing

I’m going to paraphrase (heavily) Dr Liu’s presentation. The two things that I took away from his presentation is that they are creating what seemed to me to be an incubator for digital companies in Beijing – the Cyber Recreation District. This includes animators, game developers and other digital media companies. One of the words that was used over and over during the presentations was ‘eco-system’.

It seemed to be used in two ways at the conference and more widely in business. I have often heard it used in the context of Silicon Valley and the eco-system of education, talent, start-ups and venture capital that helps drive the innovation economy there. For a long time, businesses and governments have been trying to replicate the magic of Silicon Valley around the world. The Cyber Recreation District looks to be another effort to create that sort of eco-system.

The other way that eco-system was used was to describe a self-reinforcing business model around a service or a product. Fora.tv’s Brian Gruber probably put this best where competitors can become collaborators.

Back to Dotman. The business model of Dotman is a virtual world where you could also buy real world products and financial services. Brad Howarth put it this way in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Dr Liu says Dotman will be a virtual world for conducting business with fully integrated, standard commercial transaction mechanisms. Money and services can easily be exchanged between online and offline areas within the CRD.

Brad also notes that Dotman will be based on “Entropia Universe platform from Swedish developer MindArk”. Dotman looks to bridge not only the virtual and real worlds, but as Brad says, the rest of the world and the Chinese market.

Bruce Joy, founder and CEO of VastPark

Second Life has been getting a lot of media and disappointing a few people, Bruce said as he started. They will get over the issues of scalability, he added, but asked: “What happens when there isn’t just one SL but thousands? What happens when there are vast numbers of virtual worlds like blogs?” He said.

Old media has been about control of the connection between consumers and content. Now, viewers expect to have a voice. We are starting to programme our own channels. It’s about participation. It’s a discussion and a relationship. You and I can come together and form a new medium.

Virtual worlds seem a great fit for this, but most will fail. If there are millions of virtual worlds, they will have no value. Marketers should wake up. SL is delivering a ‘mall’ type experience. The user experience won’t scale past SL number 3.

He said that virtual Worlds are failing:

  • We have brought back the concept of distance.
  • We also have ‘application-itis’. People don’t want to install another app.
  • The skills necessary to create good 3D experience take time.

We see that virtual environments and user generated rooms are taking off, and he pointed to Habbo Hotel. He said:

Let’s share a little dream together. What if you could have shared realities, created and linked by users. Small is smart. It’s a viral medium. You could pass it along and recommend it. If you were a content creator or a consumer, you could have a direct one-to-one experience. Make the content episodic.

VASTPark. It is about owning your own virtual world or content. You can create a space and allow users to create rooms off of that.

He wanted to create a virtual space where it was OK to be alone. If you compare that with the model in SL, they are not that great at giving you cool content that you can play with. He compared his vision with JF Sebastian, the genetic designer in Blade Runner who created companions for himself.

VASTPark allows linking through virtual worlds. It’s scalable and it transcends spatial problems.

I agree with Bruce, Second Life has some problems, but the users of SL are very loyal. I think there will have to be an interface breakthrough that makes virtual worlds easier to use and a better development platform than SL. But it continues to be an interesting experiment.

Will SL be the VRML of the 1990s or transcend its current problems? Will one of the many competitors – like VASTPark – take advantage of SL’s shortcomings or advance virtual worlds? At the moment, SL is definitely on the wrong side of the hype curve, but it continues to show what is possible with virtual worlds.

links for 2007-08-16

X|Media|Lab Melbourne: Martha Ladly, Mobile Experience Design

Again apologies to Martha about not getting this up sooner, but I’m glad that I’ve had some time to digest what she was saying and also do some casual surfing to explore the projects that she was talking about. Twenty minutes is difficult to get a sense of the breadth of work that she’s done.

I met Martha at the opening drinks of X|Media|Lab and really liked her ideas about digital storytelling and emerging mobile applications.

By way of introduction to her talk, she talked about how she got into design. She played in bands and designed album covers. OMG, Martha designed the Power, Lies and Corruption cover for New Order. She worked for Peter Gabriel for 10 years and designed 50 album covers for his Real World label including Sheila Chandra and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

In 1992, Peter Gabriel wanted to create an interactive CD. She worked on the Eve CD-ROM project with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. I actually have Eve. It’s a fascinating interactive experience. You can’t really call it a game. It’s more of an experience. They also created an interactive CD called the Ceremony of Innocence based on the Griffin & Sabine books.

She now works with a group called Horizon Zero, a monthly web publication. They have created digital documentaries. They had a lovely project called Murmur in the Market. It was about a neighbourhood, Kensington Market, in transition, and they recorded stories about the neighbourhood that were overlaid on a hand drawn map of the neighbourhood. I like the flash-based map navigation, and the audio works well in the player that they developed.

I especially like the audio segments that have street sounds and give me an sense of the bustle and activity in the neighbourhood. One of the common mistakes with audio is to only do the interview in a nice sound-proofed studio, but if you’re trying to evoke a sense of place, it’s always good to have ‘nat-sound’ or ‘wild track’ to set the scene for listeners. In London, I often go and buy lunch at the market in Leather Lane around the corner for our offices. There is a great street vendor who has a wonderful sing-song quality as he hawks his wares. His voice falls up and down in pitch. “TOP QUALITY (then low) get it here. ONLY BEST BRANDS (then low) three for a pound.” I’d definitely add that as a transition between more set piece interviews, and a good directional microphone can keep the voice of the subject in focus while letting a little street sound bleed through.

Back to Martha’s talk…two years ago, a group got together about how to move mobile experience forward. She is working on the Park Walk project. They are telling stories about Toronto’s High Park using mobile phones with GPS units. They also play a game called “The Haunting” with Mont Royal Park in Montreal. They have also done some great stuff in Banff called Global Heart Beat. As people move through GPS zones, they find out about the animals that live in that habitat.

Mobile technology can bridge the gap between virtual and real, and she highlighted, Blast Theory, a group of artists in the UK that have produced video games based in real space.

She talked about some open-source technologies such as Arduino, an open-source prototyping platform. (She mentioned quite a few, and I’ll mention a few that I know of as well, including OpenMoko and their Neo open-source mobile phone. I am also thinking about trying the GP2X handheld game. It’s not a mobile phone-data device per se, but it’s very extensible, possibly a bit beyond my meagre tech skills but worth a play. I like the fact that you get a fully operational Linux device that can actually be used as a full-fledged pocket computer.)

I’m going to paraphrase Martha. Mobile has yet to hits its stride, but it has a lot of technologies that could be used to tell location-based stories. GPS, cameras and bluetooth all have application that is only being explored. From my point as a journalist, I think this is an area rich for exploration as far as newsgathering. Possibly in the future, information will delivered across cities based on not only subject relevance but also local relevance. As I said, lots of area for exploration.

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X|Media|Lab Melbourne: Liz Heller, Buzztone

Sincere apologies to my fellow mentors for not getting some of my notes up sooner, but without WiFi on Friday and the mentoring all weekend, I usually ended up posting late at night. Friday, I stayed up until 130 in the morning. I did as much as I could in between sessions on the weekend, but being a mentor, I wanted to do justice to the groups who came to discuss their projects. As for continuing the late night blogging, exhaustion prevented me from doing more over the weekend.

Liz Heller started out in sociology, and she is fascinated how people travel in ‘groups and loops’. They formed a company called Buzztone, which “creates award-winning lifestyle, pop culture, urban and guerrilla marketing campaigns”. She went on to describe social motivations to keep in mind when thinking about social software and services:

We share a lot in common. We want to be a part of something. We want to share what we love. We all want to be just a little famous. We all want to think that we are the first to find something new. We all want to have friends.

People want to stay in touch with friends they already have. Social networks are seen as ways to deepen existing friendships not supplant them. (Bravo Liz. I couldn’t agree more. Media always cover online social networks as if they supplant not supplement real world social bonds. For most of the people I know, it’s just not so. And Liz added a new word my vocabulary: Frobligations, friends referrals through other friends that you feel obligated to befriend.)

Her work revolves around marketing campaigns that relied on some of these social needs. They used a social club and lots of social outreach to connect women to French wine. They used feedback from the members to feed back into the social club. (Again, I think this is a key thing that most ‘social marketing’ companies forget: Feedback. Most of the time, they focus only on seeding their message in social networks, not using those social networks to make their products better and their companies genuinely more responsive.)

They also developed a student network for Microsoft called Spoke. It was the first social network for tech students. It was global and regionalised. It helped to change student perceptions of Microsoft.

Social networks are a filter. She pointed out MoveOn.org, OurChart (a social network for lesbians from the popular programme The L Word), Block Savvy (a niche urban-focused social network) and a number of others. (When people ask me about how I stay on top of developments in digital media and journalism, and one of the best tools I have is a the dozen or so digital journalism experts who blog in my RSS reader. They are my filter, my radar, my early warning trend watchers. Now, seeing all of these social networks developing, I must say that it reminds me slightly of the late dot.com boom when sites took an e-commerce model and chased increasingly small sales niches. Remember all of those pet e-commerce sites? I think there is value in focused communities online, but that is value to me as an end-user. I’m not so sure about value in terms of a sustainable business model. However, I can see the justification if you’re looking to build a social network around a marketing campaign, even if that isn’t my particular focus.)

Groups and loops for causes. She showed stopglobalwarming.org, a social network following on from Live Earth and Zaadz. Social media encourages face-to-face engagement. Houseparty.com and reunion.com all encourage real world events. (Again, it was really good to hear someone counter the media-driven myth that online social activity creates a world of anti-social people. Whether it’s Twitter, Flickr, Dopplr or my blog, these things reinforce my real world social interaction. They helped jump start my social life when I moved to London a couple of years ago. But as Suw says, Twitter gets her out to the pub to spend time with friends.)

I liked the ideas Liz was presenting. The marketing-sensitive consumer in me was possibly too aware of commercial purpose of some of these projects, but Liz wasn’t just talking about trying to infect social networks with marketing messages, which seems to me the purpose of some viral campaigns. Social marketing campaigns that don’t listen, aren’t social, even if they are targeting social spaces online, and her emphasis on using feedback from the community is often missed by many digital marketing companies.

And I really liked Liz’ emphasis that there is a symbiotic relationship between online and offline community. It’s a myth that online community is a parasitic drain on real world social interaction, and it’s great to hear someone like Liz challenge conventional wisdom.

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X|Media|Lab Melbourne: Martin Hoffman, Moko and Loop mobile

Martin Hoffman is with Moko, a mobile-only social network, not using mobile as an extension of the PC experience as Bebo and MySpace are doing. Social networks have their own metrics, looking beyond page views and looking at the length of user sessions. Moko boasts 72 minutes per user visit.

Mobile social networking really is about communication, and he pointed to the development of SMS. Last year, SMS generated $70bn of revenue worldwide. He said that SMS really took off when the networks interconnected, but the carriers still haven’t learned this with data and web services. Bebo has done a deal with Orange. MySpace has struck a deal with Vodafone. Mobile data is not as open as the internet. The handset manufacturers add another layer of complication. Nokia and LG might want different user experiences on their handsets.

Nokia bought a small social network called Twango. Imagine that Dell had spent $100m to buy a social networking. If you use a Dell, a Mac or any other PC, you don’t think about buying a computer to access a social networking site. The challenge for mobile is that you can have great services but can’t get access to users. And he said he didn’t even want to talk about data charges.

The mobile phone is the most profound platform out there he said. But it’s clear that carriers and handset manufacturers have not learned the value of openness.

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X|Media|Lab Melbourne: Francisco Cordero, Bebo

Francisco Cordero of Bebo said that social media and networking serves our need to be distracted for a little while and allows people to share who they are with others. Ten percent of all of the data traffic in Australia comes from YouTube, and they believe that distraction media (viral) will give way to deep audience engagement.

The 16-24 age grooup watch less TV. Texting is like living and breathing for young people, and mobile phones will become even more embedded in their lives leading to exponential growth.

Bebo has a three-pronged approach self-expression, community and content. The current focus for Bebo is on content, with partnerships with iTunes and CurrentTV. They have created a battle of bands style hip hop talent search in partnership with Nike.

He showed off KateModern, a video blog ala LonelyGirl15. (Note from me: Ahhh, now, I know what the graffiti outside our offices in Farringdon is about. Nice try at a guerrilla marketing campaign guys.)

The clip he played felt a little contrived to me, and I think what made LonelyGirl15 compelling was that it had a certain authenticity that I felt was lacking in the KateModern clips. But I think it is clear that Bebo thinks it can differentiate itself from other social networking sites through content.

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X|Media|Lab Melbourne: Jason Romney, Telstra-Big Pond

Telstra-Big Pond has 12 islands in Second Life. And he touched on some of the challenges of a major company operating in SL. People had protested against the telco’s presence, but he accepted that this was a risk of doing business in Second Life.

One of the most interesting parts of his talk was how the second largest bank in SL just shut today, reflecting turmoil in international financial markets in the real world.

He also showed off some interesting sound sculptures in Second Life where moving through light shards made some sounds or even had triggered words. In the US, public funding is going to support the Auden project

Big Pond created the islands just in March, and their presence has generated three-quarters of a million dollars worth of press coverage. They now have the largest brand in SL in the world, based on Linden traffic and time spent on their islands.

They definitely have a good strategy in that they have focused the development on their islands to focus on activities, giving people things to do. I don’t spend much time in SL, but Suw did for a time. And one of her complaints after a time was that she didn’t find much to do. After flying around for a while, she got a bit bored.

Now, there is a VoIP service in SL that is supplanting text chats. People are coming to their Billabong Bar to talk and play music. They also are renting out plots of land on their islands. They struggled with a lot of issues about privacy and what types of services they would allow. Very un-Telstra issues such as what would be their policy for ‘escort services’.

What they are trying to do is to balance governance with a desire not to interfere. Traffic is up 35% since they started the tenancy agreements. Telstra is working with Linden on both software and hardware improvements to make the SL experience better.

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X|Media|Lab Melbourne: Marcelino Ford-Livene, Intel digital home

Marcelino confesses that he is a couch potato. He works a hard day, and he wants to come home and lean back and be a passive consumer. He is passionate about TV. He asked: To lean, or not to lean, that is the question.

What is a ‘lean back web TV’ experience? Is PC/laptop compelling enough? Will this work for all? What will it take to become a global reality? Who are the stakeholders? Consumers, regulatory agencies, content providers.

Mega-trends and projections:

  1. The internet has seen a huge transition over the last 18-24 months. Traditional sites moved to video on demand, UGC, social networking and broadband TV.
  2. Today almost 37% of TV households have broadband. By 2011, more than 98m will have adopted broadband TV.
  3. Broadband video is here. The web will continue to provide a great vehicle for independent creators to get discovered. (WSJ, Aug 2007). The web is a great playground for indy creators to create content. Nearly two-thirds of consumers want their televisions to link to the internet.
  4. The industry is responding. Big players are entering broadband video. There is a slew of acquisitions and distribution tie-ups. New entrants are focused on delivering traditional TV experience plus connected interactive experiences.
  5. Next year in the US, the early upfront estimates from BlackArrow. Americans will spend 376 billion hours watching linear TV less DVR and VOD. Television still matters. Online video is only 8 billion hours in comparison. Home internet use minus video will be 71 billion hours. DVR viewing will make up 93 billion hours, time shifted 40, and the rest live viewing.
  6. Continuous advertising growth is 17% with internet ads in video rising at 30% a year.
  7. OK, busy slide. But look at Asia for growth for online video. In Asia-Pacific, online video users will grow from 5.3b in 2006 to 146b in 2012. Western Europe will grow to 82b in the same time, and North America will grow to 72b. More than 300b online video users by 2012 with the greatest numbers in Asia.
  8. Broadband TV sweet spot is programme length a little longer with medium quality. More ad units in longer form content.
  9. Lion-share of traffic go to ad supported sites showing premium content. (Premium quality, not premium as in paid content.)

By 2011, the Diffusion Group predicts that 36% of broadband video will arrive video game consoles, the next highest portion will be hybrid set-top boxes followed by networked digital TVs with 24%.

The uncompromised internet will come to the pocket, he said pointing to the iPhone. Smaller, faster, more powerful chips the size of a US penny will arrive. Better power consumption will allow better mobile devices. Video will be important across several platforms from mobile phones, mobile games, laptops, PCs and networked digital TVs. There will be more cross-platform marketing opportunities.

Key points:

  • Consumers like free premium content on their own terms. Ad supported content still is dominant.
  • Broadband video is still growing, but TV still matters.
  • The TV experience is evolving.
  • Internet video advertising is experiencing 30% continuous annual growth. Ad standards are needed. Pop-up ads in internet video?
  • Distribution models are evolving. Protect versus distribute.
  • Smaller, faster chips are here. In the next two years, there will be new host of devices based on these more powerful, more mobile chips.
  • Retailers still matter.

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