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10/25/2007
03:59 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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'CSI: NY''s Second Life Adventure Was Delightful -- But Not Revolutionary. At Least Not Yet.

CSI: NY's episode in Second Life was a total blast. I went into it with pretty low expectations, and was delighted throughout. It was a heck of a lot of fun -- and it got Second Life right in spirit, even though the SL portrayed on the show was much faster, more stable, and had much better graphics than the real thing.

CSI: NY's episode in Second Life was a total blast. I went into it with pretty low expectations, and was delighted throughout. It was a heck of a lot of fun -- and it got Second Life right in spirit, even though the SL portrayed on the show was much faster, more stable, and had much better graphics than the real thing.

The TV show devoted its Wednesday night episode to a mystery in Second Life. The fabulous team of well-groomed detectives comes upon a body that looks like an avatar -- green hair, pearly skin, leather miniskirt, antigravity breasts. They learn that the victim -- or "vic," as we street-smart persons say -- was popular in Second Life. One character refers to her as a "cybercelebrity," dropping the word casually, as though it's something anybody has ever said in real life.

Another character refers to her as "the Paris Hilton of Second Life." Ever since I heard that line in a preview a couple of weeks ago, I've been telling women in Second Life, "I thought you were the Paris Hilton of Second Life." And then I grin and wink. The cyberchicks dig that.

To find the killer -- or "perp," as we street-smart persons say -- the detectives have to go into Second Life. They construct an avatar for Gary Sinise's character, and he sets off on a Second Life adventure, questioning suspects, getting into a high-speed chase involving a rocket pack and jet-propelled skateboard, and engaging in gladiator combat in a virtual Rome. (But not Roma, the virtual Rome recreation that actually exists in SL).

Last night's episode ended in a cliff-hanger, with the killer striking again (in real life) and escaping. The mystery is scheduled to conclude in February.

This is all part of a project by the CBS and virtual worlds developers the Electric Sheep Company to cross-pollinate TV and virtual worlds. They were initially going to do it in CSI: Miami, but the producers were concerned that viewers wouldn't be able to tell actor David Caruso from an avatar.

Ha. Kidding.

The CSI creators and Electric Sheep have set up CSI-themed areas in Second Life, where users can log in and play murder-mystery games, including trying to solve the mystery begun in Wednesday's episode.

Electric Sheep introduced its own version of the Second Life client, called OnRez, in conjunction with the promotion, which you can download from the CSI: NY home page or the OnRez page by Electric Sheep. The viewer is based on the same source code as the standard viewer, with a brighter, metallic skin than the standard, and its own built-in Web browser. The overall user interface resembles a Web browser.

I tried the OnRez viewer for a couple of hours last night. I think it'll be much easier than the standard viewer for new users, since it bears a resemblance to software the user is already familiar with -- a Web browser. The existing Second Life client doesn't resemble much of anything other than itself -- except for possibly a hatrack making love to an octopus (to paraphrase Robert A. Heinlein in another context).

What I mean to say here is that the existing SL client is somewhat confusing for new users, and the OnRez client appears to be an improvement.

Despite the differences, existing users of Second Life will find the OnRez client to be mostly familiar, since it's based on the standard SL software code. The menus are very similar, and the usual keyboard shortcuts work. And existing SL users will find a couple of new features to like, such as a history button which which keeps track of where users have been and lets users retrace their teleports backwards. The history button looks and works like a Web browser's back button. And the OnRez client even seems to mitigate -- or maybe even solve -- a persistent, annoying bug I've been experiencing running Second Life on the Mac, where textures occasionally flicker and turn black.

The CSI cross-promotion has the potential to bring a flood of new users in-world. CSI: NY had 13.9 million viewers last week, according to the New York Times's TV Decoder blog. By comparison, Second Life has received a total of 10.3 million signups since its 2003 launch, and 441,5000 logins in the last seven days.

Is the episode bringing in swarms of new users? The insightful Tateru Nino at the blog Second Life Insider says not so much:

Although, apparently there were large numbers of registrations, the Web site for the download of the OnRez viewer failed, preventing many from obtaining the viewer. So, while there was a sharp increase in evening logons after the episode, there was no flood. Perhaps tomorrow. More likely, on the weekend. The jury is still out as to whether the whole shebang will be a hit or a miss.

Electric Sheep founder Sibley Verbeck said new registrations at the Second Life Web site were up 40,000 today over normal new registration traffic of about 8,000 per day, not counting the number of people who signed up through the CBS portal. That's tiny compared with CSI: NY's viewer base, but within expectations. "We weren't expecting a lot more than that," Verbeck said. Getting involved in Second Life isn't just a matter of visiting a Web site -- you have to register, download software, install it, and get acclimated to navigation and communication. That takes time.

"A lot of the pieces we're doing with CSI: NY have not been done before, not tried in combination with a show like this. The biggest impact will be what we learn from it, the experimentation, and what can be successful," Verbeck said. "I think there will be a lot of entertainment properties that bridge the virtual world and television. The industry has to figure out how to make that successful."

There already are several communities of TV fans in Second Life: Battlestar: Galactica and Star Trek have active role-playing areas in Second Life, where residents build ships and props and put their avatars in virtual costumes and enact scenarios based on the TV shows. However, these aren't officially sanctioned by the media companies that own those properties.

"The real impact will be in the longer run, to watch people interact between the TV series and the content in Second Life," said Glenn Fisher, director of business programs for Linden Lab. Many people watched CSI: NY because they'd heard Second Life was going to be on it (I was one of them -- I don't usually watch CSI: NY, but I tuned in last night.) "I talked to a number of people in Second Life who said they watched this show, even though normally they don't have time to watch television because they're too busy in Second Life," he said.

CSI creator, CBS's Anthony Zuiker, has said that he hopes virtual worlds tie-ins like this one will help bring back TV viewers who've abandoned television in favor of the Internet.

Whether that actually works remains to be seen. The CSI: NY model in Second Life is the television model, where professionals create the content and consumers, well, consume it. Second Life users don't just consume -- they love to build, whether it's writing code, designing 3-D objects, or building communities of interest.

Moreover, I've learned the hard way not to be too optimistic about real-world brands moving in to Second Life and legitimizing or jet-propelling the medium. I became irrationally exuberant over the NBA launch in Second Life, and I predicted big success for it. That kind of fizzled; I haven't heard much about it since, and I'm somewhat embarrassed about the article I wrote. Likewise, I was enthusiastic about Phil's Supermarket in Second Life. The organizer, celebrity foodie Phil Lembert, had wonderful ideas, but fell down on execution. (I didn't write about the Phil's Supermarket launch -- I'd learned my lesson from the NBA, to wait for results before waxing enthusiastic.)

This isn't to say that Second Life is doomed for business. Many real-world companies have been successful doing business in Second Life, but it takes time to build a community. It doesn't happen overnight, with a big launch.

Also, what we've seen in the evolution of the Internet is that the big winners aren't existing real-world brands and companies that come into the new medium, but rather brands and properties that evolve natively. The big names on the Internet are names that sprang up over the course of the past decade -- Google, eBay, Amazon. I expect that virtual worlds will be the same. I expect the big winners in virtual worlds will be names we've never heard of today because the companies don't exist yet. They'll be born in virtual worlds -- not on TV.

So I'm skeptical that CSI: NY will have revolutionary long-term impact. But, just as I shouldn't have been so exuberant about the NBA, I shouldn't be overly pessimistic here. If CSI: NY sticks with Second Life for the long term, it can succeed despite precedents.

And it was a heck of an episode. Let's not forget that. I was grinning and laughing throughout. My wife says that my hands and fingers were moving during the Second Life scenes, as though I were sitting at a computer keyboard myself.

The writers adroitly handled the fluid nature of identity in Second Life. You can pretend to be someone else, and really become that person -- for a while. When you're logged in.

The virtual detective avatar created by the characters was operated, at different times, by three different people -- two men and a woman -- and changed gender from man to woman when it became necessary for the investigation.

The always insightful Gwyneth Llewelyn shares her analysis.

I'm looking forward to a very different look at Second Life tonight, when Dwight from The Office goes in-world.

Did you catch the show last night? What did you think?

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