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  Help Me Round Out a SXSW Screenburn Panel [Updated]  
Posted 2007-01-08 by Tony Walsh
I'll be moderating a panel this March on "Avatar-Based Marketing in Synthetic Worlds" at SXSW's gaming sideshow Screenburn. I'm trying to keep the panel as balanced as possible with regards to gender and virtual-world interest. So far, I've got all the men I need, with Second Life and There well-represented, but I'd really like to include a woman who has experience with a third major, commercialized virtual world such as Habbo. If you're such a woman, or know someone who is, please drop me a line with an introduction. Thanks.

[Update1: see clarification below]
[Update2: Thanks for the responses, I've successfully rounded out the panel!]
  Our Avatars, Ourselves  
Posted 2006-12-01 by Tony Walsh
In researching a pending Business Week column on teens in virtual reality environments, Ypulse's Anastasia Goodstein dug up some interesting ideas by Dr. Sonja Baumer about how different age-groups relate to avatars. I've paraphrased [and added comments] Baumer's theory:
  • Younger children and tweens find their identity in the appearance of the avatar. Self-representation is achieved through customizing and improving their avatar's looks.
  • Adults find self-representation through chat, status, and money ["money" could probably be generalized as a "wealth" of virtual goods or currency]. The avatar's appearance is not as important as its facilitation of action within the environment. [The avatar is a means to an end for adults?]
  • Teenagers and possibly young adults look for both physical and symbolic self-representations. There is a disconnect between Habbo-like flat avatars and the depth of interactions teens are capable of [3D is the way to go for teens?].
Baumer says that these ideas have yet to be systematically examined--I'm not sure she's explored much further than Habbo Hotel, for example. I don't find anything particularly objectionable in her line of thinking, but I wonder if teens really have an aversion to 2D? As a 2D artist, I'd like to know how differences in 2D representation and interface might be perceived differently by teens and young adult--I'll probably regret writing this, but in some ways I feel 3D representations are a trend.
  More Rockers Jump on Virtual-World Bandwagon  
Posted 2006-11-04 by Tony Walsh
Old musicians never die, they just retire in virtual worlds. Such is the case with Duran Duran, Ben Folds, and now Oasis. The aging Britpop band has taken up residence in the aptly-named virtual world Faketown, where users can watch computer representations of the band "performing" their new single--sort of like how visitors to a Disney theme park can watch creepy animatronic robots sing "It's a Small World." Faketown is a 2D web-based environment that looks something like the lovechild of Habbo Hotel and Dollz. I took a few minutes out to watch Oasis "peform" in Faketown and found the experience totally underwhelming. The two avatar audience members in attendance were both sleeping. One of them was me.
  Real Shoes, Virtual Worlds  
Posted 2006-08-11 by Tony Walsh
Pacific Epoch summarizes a report on a deal struck between popular Chinese IM service Tencent QQ and sneaker-maker Sansda. The result? QQ-branded sneakers. The story doesn't indicate if the shoes are based on virtual counterparts available as avatar accessories, or whether users can order the shoes through the QQ system.

On a somewhat-related note, Xbox 360 game NBA 2K6 was designed to feature Nike iD shoes and allow gamers to customize and purchase their own shoes through the game interface. Last October, Microsoft announced that its Xbox 360 brand would be paired with adidas sportsgear around the world. Earlier this year, as PlayNoEvil mentions, Sulake's Habbo Hotel China is now allowing online purchases of virtual items that are paired with real-world sales. Items reportedly include flowers, clothes, and movie tickets.
  Pick Your SXSW Panels  
Posted 2006-08-10 by Tony Walsh
The organizers of SXSW Interactive have posted 173 panel proposals for 2007's conference (March 9-13), and voting is now open--pick your personal top 10 and help shape the future of this fine interactive meetup. I was a panelist in 2005 and moderated a panel this year that made the conference's "Honor Roll."

I've pitched "Avatar-Based Marketing in Synthetic Worlds" for 2007: "Synthetic, alternate worlds such as Second Life, There, and Habbo Hotel are populated by customizable, user-controlled avatars. These exciting spaces are increasingly being eyed as the next level in experiential marketing. Does a successful marketing effort target the user or the avatar? What are the best ways to capture and retain attention in a virtual world? Our panelists discuss the business, cultural, and ethical considerations of marketing to avatars."

There are a number of other proposed panels related to gaming and virtual worlds, including Monty Sharma's "Never Die While Typing Again!" and "When Avatars Get Hungry,"Jonas Luster's "Omgz, Roflcoptr, Chucknorris -- Life and Living in Virtual Worlds," Mark Wallace's "Building the 3D Web: Real Companies Discover Virtual Worlds" and "Living the Metaverse: Virtual Worlds and the Future of Connectivity," Joel Greenberg's "Alternate Reality Games: Friend or Foe?" and "Pwned! Girl Video Gamers Teach You the Facts About Successful Marketing," Dan Lowden's "Mobile Gaming Revolution: Bringing Gamers Together in a Wireless Community" and Wagner James Au's "Web 2.0 to Web 3D." Last year's SXSW included the "Screenburn" sub-conference, which turned out to be a bit underwhelming. My hope is that if these panels don't make it to the main track, they'll turn up on the sideshow.
  ‘Habbo’ Going Mobile  
Posted 2006-07-12 by Tony Walsh
Sulake, maker of the insanely popular 2D virtual world Habbo Hotel (53 million avatars created to date), has announced a strategic partnership with Japan's Movida Group that will re-launch Habbo in mobile form under the Habbo Mobile banner. In October, 2005, Sulake brought Habbo Island to Nokia's ill-fated N-Gage mobile device. While there's currently no information available on what Habbo Mobile will consist of, Island involved 20 adventures and connectivity with the rest of the Habbo Hotel world. Here's hoping for Habbo Mobile on the WiFi-capable Nintendo DS.
  ‘Tag Friends’: A Micro-World on Your Web Page  
Posted 2006-06-16 by Tony Walsh
‘Tag Friends’: A Micro-World on Your Web Page
Actual size :)
Japanese developer Core Colors brings us Tag Friends, a 2D, avatar-based microworld (called a "TAG") meant to reside on one's blog or web site. With a look somewhere between Animal Crossing and PaRappa the Rapper, Tag Friends uses miniature environments and cute critters to attract participation.

When installed on a web site, visitors will show up in the TAG window. Unregistered visitors are depicted as a translucent Zombee, and can't chat, but registered users of course have full functionality. The Tag Friends service acts not only as a chat gateway, but also as a web-ring (promoting travel between TAG-enabled web sites), messaging system, and a blog-reader. While signing up for the currently-free service is easy, avatars can't be changed once chosen--a major drawback given the role of an avatar as a vehicle for user self-expression.

The strategy with Tag Friends seems to be to keep users generally inside a closed, controlled system. This is similar to the virtual worlds of Second Life and Habbo Hotel but differs from avatar-creation services such as Meez, and WeeWorld. I'd love to see Tag Friends come to the WiFi-enabled Nintendo DS. Actually, if the pending Opera Browser for the DS supports the right version of Flash, my wish might come true.
  Harvard Business Review On ‘Avatar-Based Marketing’  
Posted 2006-05-30 by Tony Walsh
Harvard Business Review's Senior Editor Paul Hemp tipped me off to his latest article "Avatar-Based Marketing," running in the publication's June issue. He's interested in feedback on the article, so feel free to add your comments to the end of this post.

The extensive article is detailed but easy to digest, leading readers new to virtual worlds (specifically, Second Life) through the basics and nuances of avatars, covering some of their current and potential relationships with marketing efforts. What most impresses me is the degree of research Hemp's apparently done, and the fact that he covers the potential for avatar-marketing failures. It has been a near-constant complaint of mine that the media--business media in particular--often bungle reports on virtual worlds. Hemp's latest article demonstrates that he's done his homework (similar to the research done for his earlier HBR piece on this subject), and is peppered with supporting quotes, including a brief mention of "advertar," a word I coined to describe avatars used as autonomous or user-controlled marketing vehicles.

Continue reading: Harvard Business Review On ‘Avatar-Based Marketing’
  Misguidance On Branding In Virtual Worlds  
Posted 2006-02-21 by Tony Walsh
Remember the rise of blogs? It wasn't so long ago that public and business interests were scrambling to make some sense of the blogging explosion. Some still are. I recall in particular how marketers worked so hard to wrap their heads around the naked conversations blogging allows. Plenty of bad advice was offered by consultants as to how best convert blogs into marketing tools, or at least leverage bloggers for their superhuman buzz-powers.

As I expected, 2006 is shaping up to be the year that virtual worlds explode. Like blogs, virtual worlds are being eyed as the next big thing in terms of marketing potential. But don't believe everything you read. Shanth Interactive has posted a rather misguided report on branding in virtual worlds, obviously written by one or more authors with little or no first-hand experience with the locales discussed.

Following is my detailed response to the Shanth report. Shanth's text has been emphasized in bold.

Continue reading: Misguidance On Branding In Virtual Worlds
  2006 Trendwatch:  Virtual World Residency  
Posted 2006-01-02 by Tony Walsh
In December I was asked by a marketing blogger to submit a trend I thought would be important in 2006. Since my submission doesn't seem to have been accepted, I'm publishing it here with a few minor edits:

In 2006, we will see an unprecedented number of multiplayer and multi-user spaces crest the mainstream, following the popularity of massive games such as World of Warcraft (4.5M users) and social spaces such as Habbo Hotel (4.3M unique users monthly). As membership in virtual worlds continues to increase and diversify over the course of 2006, it will become socially-acceptable—even socially-advantageous—to openly discuss the details of our alter egos, including "avatars" (one's digital "self" in a virtual world), and residences (such as user-owned land in Second Life). Virtual worlds aren't just game-spaces. They are places to relax, network, learn, educate and express our adventurous sides. In the 1990s, we asked each other "Where is your Home Page?" In 2006 and beyond, we will be asking each other "Where does your avatar live?"

Continue reading: 2006 Trendwatch:  Virtual World Residency
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