Concerts get 'Second Life' on Internet

Concert simulcast in the popular virtual world attempts to merge three platforms--live, Internet and virtual world--into one common experience.

DENVER--In a small abandoned warehouse in an industrial area north of Denver, local bands Bad Weather California, Born in the Flood and Meese are playing a very unusual gig.

At first glance it seems pretty straightforward. The warehouse contains the headquarters and studios of Internet video outfit ManiaTV, which is streaming the performances live via its Internet TV network.

Nothing new there. Ever since the online success of the worldwide Live 8 music festival--during which some 5 million viewers tuned in to AOL to view the concerts--companies like Control Room (formerly Network Live) have emerged to air concerts live online, while such venues as the Knitting Factory, the Gig, CenterStaging's rehearsals.com and various Live Nation properties now record and broadcast almost all their performances.

What makes this Denver concert different is that it is also being simulcast in the popular virtual world Second Life. Again, by itself that's nothing unheard of. Suzanne Vega and Ben Folds performed in avatar form in Second Life last year.

But taken together it's an attempt to merge the three platforms--live, Internet and virtual world--into one common experience. Why? Because with CD sales falling like a rock and digital revenue not yet making up the difference, live events could be the music "product" of the future, sparking a flurry of innovation around ways to profit from it.

"Normally when you simulcast something, (fans) only see one platform--the one (they are) viewing," said Farook Singh, whose company Tantra World Wide conceived of and produced the Denver event. "But the goal here is to be totally seamless between three platforms."

For instance, those watching the Internet stream on ManiaTV saw the event not only from the perspective of multiple camera angles, but also from the point of view of a special Second Life "cam" that spliced in shots of the different bands' avatars performing in the virtual world. Meanwhile, those in Second Life watching the avatars perform were also viewing video of the real thing streamed from a large screen behind the virtual "stage." And those in the studios watching it live could also see what was happening in both, on about 25 TV monitors set up throughout the space.

The upcoming Live Earth event is another example. In addition to holding concerts worldwide in multiple locations, producers will air the event live online via MSN--where viewers can choose from several camera angles, interact with venue and city maps where the shows are taking place and even submit their own user-created videos adhering to the event's green-friendly theme.

Exactly how all this translates to more revenue still needs to be worked out. Acts can charge admission for both Second Life and Internet TV performance, and sponsors might pay a premium for interactive banners in Second Life shows as an extension of their visual banners at the live show.

But before big bands and big sponsors routinely add such a multiplatform extension to their upcoming tours, the experience needs a bit of work. As the initial Denver attempt shows that it's a difficult undertaking.

First, there's the time lag that has long plagued Second Life. Get more than 30 avatars in the same space and people start losing clothes, the audio skips, and video load times get real jumpy, which makes it difficult to seamlessly patch it into live feeds in real life.

Tantra got around the problem somewhat by holding the event simultaneously in 25 Second Life locations so that no single virtual space would get overcrowded. But some venues still crashed.

Which raises the second issue--ticketing. Just as in real life, friends in virtual worlds want to hang out together, not get randomly assigned to different venues based on which has the best refresh rate. So Singh hopes to build a reservation system that would apply a real-world ticketing structure to the virtual events.

Finally there's the task of controlling the artists' avatars. Since the talent performing in real life can't be at a computer manipulating their digital doppelgangers, somebody has to do it for them. But spontaneous actions like a flip of the hair or a Pete Townshend windmill aren't exactly standard commands. They have to be preprogrammed. One option, though expensive, is to apply motion-capture technology to the artists performing in real life, which will control how their avatar responds as a sort of 21st-century cyber-marionette.

But technology aside, the real X-factor is whether virtual concerts will draw audiences. Close to 1,200 fans signed up to attend ManiaTV's event in Second Life, with an average of about 300 actually present at any one time. Meanwhile, some 40,000 viewed it live online.

That's a decent turnout for an event that had little marketing support. But Singh himself attributed it to the "hook" factor of it being something new and different. But once that curiosity factor dies, will anybody still care?

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