Big brother (and little sister) are watching

Advertisers follow the millions of people who now spend much of their lives in a virtual world.

Virtual reality 298.88 (photo credit: Geocities)
Virtual reality 298.88
(photo credit: Geocities)
Have you noticed that you're watching TV less than you used to? If you have a personal computer, high-speed Internet connection, MP3 or MP4, Sony PlayStation, PSP, Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo, portable DVD player, Gameboy, third-generation cellular phone or i-Pod, your shifting allegiance is not surprising. The monopoly that television had on entertainment is long gone, even though high-priced giant LCD and plasma screens are supplanting ordinary sets in an attempt to lure buyers back. The reason is that the new media are interactive, unlike television, which is merely watched passively (unless you have a game console attached to the set). Game designers and the giant industry behind them are breaking their heads finding ways to capture your attention, your time and your money. While video games have for years engrossed mostly young males, the audience has expanded. Experts predict that with the new "virtual worlds" being created on a variety of cyber media, and with content keyed to broader interests, virtually everybody will be spending a lot of time in Cyberland. Sims, the virtual-life simulation game launched almost a decade ago, and which has become the most popular software series of all time, set the trend. People apparently like to leave their own skins and take on other personae, manipulate virtual people like little girls used to play with dolls and doll houses, have virtual experiences they would never have in real life, or control inanimate beings. The idea is to create an "avatar" representing yourself and have it interact with other real peoples' avatars in a virtual population of unlimited size - building homes, playing sports, making friends, flying into space, walking at the bottom of the ocean or doing other things. Seven years ago, an online video game called Second Life allowed players to recreate themselves as digital beings. The New York Times recently reported that this "budding fake world is not only attracting a lot more people, it is taking on a real-world twist: big business interests are intruding on digital utopia. The Second Life online service is fast becoming a three-dimensional test bed for corporate marketers, including Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Sun Microsystems, Nissan, Adidas/Reebok, Toyota and Starwood Hotels." The sudden rush of real companies into so-called virtual worlds, the article continues, "mirrors the evolution of the Internet itself, which moved beyond an educational and research network in the 1990s to become a commercial proposition - but not without complaints from some quarters that the medium's purity would be lost." Already, the "regular" Internet is the world's fastest-growing advertising medium, as traditional forms of marketing such as television commercials and print ads langujish. These early forays into virtual reality could be a further harbinger in the blurring of advertising and entertainment. With growing chunks of the ad market shifting to the Internet, companies are increasingly tempted to promote themselves in these immersive virtual worlds. An automobile manufacturer, for example, can purchase - for real money - a Second Life "country" or "island," plaster it with ad billboards and offer visitors free racing games using virtual versions of its vehicles. Entertainers, authors and actors can promote their latest disks, books and movies by appearing as themselves in such virtual worlds. THIS NEW era was demonstrated at a recent symposium on gaming sponsored by Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) and held at The Lab theater in Jerusalem's Derech Hebron. The more than 200 participants - mostly secular males aged 25 to 40 working in Israeli software companies - could barely keep their hands off a virtual guitar connected to a Sony Playstation equipped with a Guitar Hero game. Selling like hotcakes in the US (they will cost NIS 500 here), this rock video game was made for PlayStation 2 by the RedOctane company. The guitar-shaped controller has colored buttons on its neck and a "strum bar" near the bridge so players can simulate the guitar-playing experience while hitting targets that seem to rush at them. About 30 tracks of (very noisy) licensed American rock music can be played by a variety of virtual rock groups. As they strum and shake their bodies, gamers feel as if they are actually performing with them. Ninety-five percent of Israeli-designed software is exported, said Guy Bendov, co-founder of Double Fusion, an Israeli company with headquarters in San Francisco and an R&D center in Jerusalem's Malha Technology Park. The young venture capital company, in which JVP has invested, has pioneered in-game advertising, dropping streaming ads and product placements into videogames. The world market for software and consoles was about $23 billion in 2003, and is expected to hit over $31 billion in 2009. The Israeli market, however, is smaller even than one would expect from its relative size, since many here make illegal copies; in the US, Europe and other parts of the world, making such copies is much less common. While violent games are more popular in Israel, children's educational games and leisure games such as golf, football and other simulated sports capture a wider audience in the US, where violent games constitute only 15% of those sold. Abroad, women are very attracted to online multiplayer games such as those offered by Yahoo and MSN, he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview before the conference began. In-game advertising, he said, is "a new advertising medium that allows companies to display their brand messages in a variety of graphic formats directly inside the actual games played by hundreds of millions of gamers worldwide. While products and brands have appeared in games for years, these product placements have historically been 'hard-coded' and couldn't be changed. Double Fusion provides the technology that makes these advertising opportunities dynamic and real-time, so advertisers who want to promote their products for a specific period, or change their message during a campaign, can now take advantage of the huge audience of game players." Hundreds of millions of people around the world play computer and videogames; more than half of all US households own a gaming console. "It's gotten so big that the largest games can each generate hundreds of millions of hours of audience time per month," said Bendov. "Time spent gaming is coming directly out of other media, with an emphasis on TV. At a time when advertisers and marketers are questioning the value and impact of their television campaigns, in-game advertising offers the answers." THE ONE-DAY conference was organized by the Israel branch of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), initiated by JVP founder and managing partner Erel Margalit. IGDA, said activist Adi Ashkenazi, has 105,000 holders of free user accounts and 10,000 paying members around the world, including 16 paying members and 423 account users in Israel. The local organization's aim is to promote respect for game developers, promote excellence and provide the latest information in the field. Ilan Graizer of the Funtactix company said the level of game detail, artificial intelligence and resolution is becoming so high that players will feel they're "in a movie. There will be seamless integration between cinema and games. And they will routinely play with people around the world whom they don't know. It will become a genuine social experience," said Grazier. "Already, game sales in the US have exceeded sales of movie tickets." Jesse Sutton, CEO and president of New Jersey-based Majesco Entertainment - a major publicly traded provider of digital entertainment - stood out among the speakers and audience, as he is an Orthodox Jew who lives in the Flatbush quarter of Brooklyn and wears a black kippa. With 15 years experience in gaming, Sutton is actively involved in the leisure-time revolution posed by the gaming industry. He predicted that the Xbox 360, which was released recently, the soon-to-be-unveiled PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii will attract many more users. At a recent promotion to gear up for its battle against Microsoft and Nintendo, Kazuo Hirai - president and chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment America - said: "With the PlayStation 3, we have taken our legacy, we have taken our vision to build a product really from the ground up that is going to lay the foundation for the next 10 years in digital entertainment." Some 400,000 consoles will be ready for North American customers when they go on sale November 17. While PlayStation 3 consoles will be expensive here, and so are not likely to be in every Israeli household, third-generation cellular phones are extremely popular, and local firms will do their best to induce all age groups to play games on the tiny color screens, said Ofir Leitner, founder and CTO of GamearraY . Cellphone screens have much lower resolution than even the cheapest PC monitors and, lacking a mouse or joystick, there is a limit to gameplay when there is room for only a thumb or two. But Leitner predicts that these would entertain many Israeli children and adults on the bus, waiting in queues or (unfortunately), under school desks. Although Israeli companies are not prominent in the design of gaming hardware, Israeli programmers and other computer professionals - daring, energetic and imaginative - are "well positioned to succeed" in the international software industry, Sutton said at the Jerusalem conference. Israeli companies are leaders in Internet security, encryption, biotech and medical devices. "There is no reason why they can't do the same in digital entertainment as well."