Hear the Music, Avoid the Mosh Pit

The avatars of the band U2 mimic their real-world counterparts in movement, hairstyles and accessory choices.
The avatars of the band U2 mimic their real-world counterparts in movement, hairstyles and accessory choices. (Second Life)

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By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 21, 2006

Musician Suzanne Vega got her start in the New York folk scene, but now the 1980s star has found a following in cyberspace.

With the help of some programmers, Vega created a 3D animated image of herself, called an avatar, and she recently performed inside a world accessible only through a Web site, where other people represented by avatars attended the concert, streamed live to computers all over the globe.

As Vega strummed her guitar inside a real studio, about 100 lucky fans sat at their computers and guided their avatars into the online scene of an outdoor amphitheater, where Vega's avatar -- youthful-looking with short hair and bangs -- appeared on stage. When the real-world artist played and sang, her online alter ego did the same -- though the avatar's lips did not move. Fans heard the concert on their computer speakers and commanded their avatars to smile or move to the music.

Later, Vega answered audience questions, sent as instant messages visible to everyone in attendance.

The Aug. 3 event, organized by a public radio program, was one of the first attempts by a major artist to interact with fans in a completely computer-fabricated world.

"The response was terrific!! I am still hearing from people who were in the 'room,' friends of friends and people all over the world who were 'there,' " Vega said in an e-mail, noting that she took an active role in picking out the maroon blouse, black cardigan and white tennis shoes her avatar wore.

Marketing and record label executives say Web sites that put users into video-game-like virtual worlds are a unique way to reach out to audiences, who are increasingly spending their time and money on the computer instead of at concerts and music stores. Although still experimental, such sites offer fans more ways to interact with one another and band members directly.

The 1980s band Duran Duran has reunited and plans to perform a live concert later this month on Second Life, the world where Vega performed, on its own virtual island. A few months ago, singer and pianist Regina Spektor built four virtual Manhattan lofts where fans could walk around, hang out and listen to streaming music from her new album a month before it was released. Even fans are taking part: A group of friends created avatars of the band U2 and has put on several virtual concerts, using music from the band's real shows and mimicking every detail, down to lead singer Bono's hairstyle, sunglasses and clothing.

Other, lesser-known bands and musicians who typically have used social networking site MySpace.com to build a following are also turning up on Second Life and other virtual worlds, such as There.com, to showcase their music.

"A virtual world brings something to the table that a Web site doesn't -- it's building a more immersive experience. . . . You kind of lose yourself in it," said Ethan Kaplan, director of technology for Warner Bros. Records, who said he has played around with Second Life for years. "It's really cool and a lot more fun and creative than just putting a MySpace page up."

Musicians are increasingly using the virtual world to hold live concerts, at specific times and dates, or listening lounges where their music plays when an avatar pays a visit. The virtual world provides a rich and colorful environment similar to computer-animated films like "Toy Story," only a notch less sophisticated.

Users control their avatars by clicking on arrows or moving the mouse, but the movement and appearance seem a bit slow at times. Unlike the real world, though, avatars can fly around or beam themselves instantly from beach to urban environment. Savvy avatars can even record an experience on Second Life and turn it into a short movie or music video, many of which are posted on online video sites like YouTube.com.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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