Inside Story: Virtual visions

The online alternative universe that is Second Life was supposed to offer myriad opportunities for media companies to showcase their wares. Chris Green takes a look at their differing fortunes
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The Independent Online

Sky News

Became the first 24-hour news channel to launch in Second Life back in May. They've even recreated the Sky News Centre, an exact copy of their base at Osterley in west London. Political editor Adam Boulton interviewed David Miliband in June, in front of an audience of rapt avatars. It's now possible for any Second Lifer to become a "virtual reporter" by picking up a microphone from the Sky News lobby.

"My job is the same as in reality," says Boulton, "except I'm thinner. I just flit about a lot and interview people. We want more consumers, and we've found some on Second Life."

The Weather Channel

Launched "Weather Island", their virtual HQ, in May. Functioning as a tie-in for a new series about extreme weather sport, the island features surfing, skiing and mountain biking simulators.

"With Second Life, we're hopeful we can expose our brand in an original and meaningful way," says Debora Wilson, president of Weather Channel Companies. "We also see it as a potential advertising platform."

BBC RADIO 1

The BBC has no permanent presence in Second Life but the Radio 1 "Big Weekend" music festival at Dundee in 2006 has been the largest virtual event staged so far, allowing Second Lifers to talk to presenters and watch artists performing on stage through streaming videos. Looks like this was a one-off though – nothing has happened since.

"Second Life is a real vision of the ways in which a 3D world can take social interaction on the internet even further," say Daniel Heaf, Radio 1's interactive editor. "It's confined to a niche audience now, but it's definitely set to get bigger."

Channel 4 Radio

Became the first UK radio station to set up a permanent Second Life base in May this year, but Channel 4 itself has no such plans. Residents can pick up a special watch, allowing them to listen to the station wherever they are in the (virtual) world.

"We're interested in building a radio station for the digital age, and the internet and Second Life in particular is changing this model," says Nathalie Schwarz, Channel 4's director of radio. "If people can listen to the radio when they're walking around in real life, then why not in the virtual world?"

Ben & Jerry's

The US ice-cream specialists launched their own island on Second Life in August. The main building is an interactive eco-factory that extols the virtues of sustainable technology, and is open to all virtual residents.

"Second Life is an interesting platform because it allows for a different kind of interaction with brands," says Mathew Bevan of Kuji Media. "In the real world there's no direct link between the advert and the product, but here you can walk straight up to the company building and either praise the brand or criticise it."

COCA-COLA

This month saw the launch of the virtual Coke Cinema. Avril Lavigne's avatar was among the crowd at the premiere of a special extended version of the award-winning "Happiness Factory" advert, along with reporters from 16 countries. Coke has no permanent island of its own, instead choosing to temporarily rent space for the event.

"It was interesting to have an event of a global nature in a 3D venue," says Marc Mathieu, Coca-Cola's senior vice president of global brand marketing. "Technology will continue to surprise us, and it's our job to constantly surprise and refresh consumers."

The AvaStar (Project of the German tabloid newspaper Bild)

Probably the largest and most organised publication in Second Life and active since December 2006. The paper is written in English and reads like a British tabloid, but only reports on virtual world issues. Has eight full-time journalists based in Germany at the offices of Bild.t-online.de, the online version of Bild. Readers download it by visiting vendors dotted around Second Life, who direct them to the AvaStar website. It has a circulation of around 25,000 a week worldwide, and it's currently free.

"We pride ourselves on being the best newspaper in Second Life," says assistant editor Leider Stepanov (a.k.a. Dave Knight). "Our reporters spend a significant part of their day there, getting stories and taking pictures. I think our bosses here saw it as an ideal opportunity to produce a new kind of product."

CNET

Launched in September 2006, becoming the first mainstream media organisation in Second Life. CNET specialises in online information sites and the CNET building in Second Life is a replica of the real life media company's HQ in San Francisco. Their dedicated journalist Daniel Terdiman uses it to do live interviews in the lecture theatre on the top floor. Recent interviewees include Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Second Life real estate mogul Anshe Chung (though the latter interview was invaded by "griefers" hurling virtual penises).

"Usually about 40 or 50 people show up," says Terdiman, "and I do about 45 minutes of Q&A and then open it up to the audience for questions."

REUTERS

Online since October 2006. They have a Second Life bureau, based on the company's main buildings at Times Square in New York and Canary Wharf in London. They even have a specialist journalist, Adam Pasick, who patrols the online world looking for stories.

"Second Life has its own economy, and Reuters has a background in financial journalism, so it makes sense for us to be there," Pasick says. "I keep regular office hours at the virtual Reuters building, and I often meet other users there to discuss stories."

Wired

Launched in October 2006, it has a snazzy building that looks like a giant circuit board. But with no dedicated reporters or regular events, the building has been pretty silent since the launch party.

"I don't think there's much of a future in Second Life," says Wired reporter Frank Rose, who has written at length about wasted marketing in the virtual world. "There's obviously a small but dedicated audience and the technology has come on a great deal, but it isn't there yet."

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