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SLCC '07: Chicago is the metaverse's metropolis

The Windy City has more in common with 'Second Life' than you'd think. Also, nonprofits may be reaping the benefits of the virtual world better than their corporate predecessors could.

Some of Millennium Park's interesting architecture; the glowing structures are actually video-equipped displays that spray water at people frolicking in the nearby reflecting pool. No joke. Caroline McCarthy/CNET Networks

CHICAGO, Ill.--This might just be the perfect city for a Second Life convention. At least this out-of-towner thinks so.

When you think about it, a good number of Chicago's urban planning quirks have quite a bit in common with the aesthetics of some of Second Life's more popular "sims." It's because parts of the city are so planned--as though they were created with a few well-thought-out mouse clicks that could easily be tweaked and improved. The business and shopping districts are peppered with bright displays of greenery and flowers, the streets and gardens in the Michigan Avenue vicinity are impeccably manicured, and skyscrapers extend literally to the banks of the local bodies of water. (Anyone who's seen New York's still-industrial waterfront will understand why this is a novelty to me.)

Plus, the city of Frank Lloyd Wright has all those eye-catching feats of modern and post-modern design--just walk into Millennium Park--that could make any jaded New Yorker say, "Holy (expletive), they actually built that? It got off the drawing board? Red tape and bureaucratic cronyism didn't halt it at stage one?"

The Second Life Community Convention kicked off Friday night with a number of art- and music-focused panels, but a good number of the attendees won't be in town until tomorrow morning--the recent spat of inconvenient weather phenomena in the Midwest crippled more than a few travel plans. Nevertheless, a small crowd of metaverse enthusiasts turned out at the Chicago Hilton on Friday evening to listen to live performances from musicians whom they'd previously known only as avatars, as well as to hear about the phenomenon of Second Life machinima--films created using the virtual world as a platform. (For those who are unfamiliar, machinima has made its way squarely into pop culture: there was a South Park episode that was about 60 percent World of Warcraft machinima, and Coca-Cola's heavily YouTubed Super Bowl ad was essentially Grand Theft Auto machinima.)

I'd never been to any kind of in-the-flesh Second Life gathering before, so taking note of the attendees was interesting. People had come from as far as New York (like me), Boston, San Francisco, Australia, Japan--there were plenty of foreign languages and accents. The crowd was largely a mix of geeks and art-school types, but the geeks were much more on the mainstream end of dorkdom than I'd have expected. There were a few unnatural hair colors, a wacky hat or two, and about a half dozen people who'd chosen to wear sunglasses indoors, but otherwise it was quite an average (albeit loquacious) bunch. A few were even flat-out business casual in dress pants and button-down shirts.

The average age was somewhere in the early- to mid-thirties, but interestingly skewed a bit older for females (i.e. the twentysomethings were primarily male). And Macs appeared to be the computer of choice, both at the SLCC events and at an offshoot art-and-music reception at Columbia College down the street (where machinima called "Zombie Horde" and music from the Avatar Orchestra Metaverse were showcased).

It was difficult to tell whether attendees, whose name tags displayed likenesses of their avatars, were introducing themselves by "meatspace" names or Second Life names. The latter seemed to prevail.

Judging by chitchat, nonprofit uses for Second Life are going to be a hot topic. One person at the machinima screening told me that he wouldn't be surprised if we saw discussion of the dissonance between residents who see Second Life marketing efforts as a cool and creative turn for corporate America and those who think it's just tacky advertising and product placement.

At one machinima screening, the host gave a rundown of the genre's definition for newbies, explaining that machinima is a form of filmmaking in which a video game is used as an artistic platform. "But Second Life isn't a game," he added quickly.

"It's a thingie!" several audience members shouted out.