The Bandwidth of Big Hair

SeclifesuzIn the TN back channel, Nate called our collective attention to today's Washington Post, where Sara Kehaulani Goo writes an article, "Hear the Music, Avoid the Mosh Pit."  The piece is primarily about the appearance of Suzanne Vega in Second Life on August 3, 2006.  I wasn't "there," but you can watch the You Tube version (and listen to John Hockenberry) here

My main take-away from both the video and the Post story, I think, is amazement at the intricate cross-currents of hype generation over the event.

I hope I'm not being too jaundiced about this.  I'm a fan of Suzanne Vega--I still probably have my old casette tapes of Suzanne Vega (1985) and Solitude Standing (1987) in my basement somewhere.  Suzanne Vega, being an artist, has something of a duty to self-promote (read: hype) and experiment. So kudos to her for riding this wave. 

But the driving engine behind the hype is virtuality, not Vega, leading me to wonder who is pushing that angle.  I was thinking this might have been another feat primarily attributable to the awesome Linden Lab marketing machine, but The Infinite Mind seems to claim credit for most of it, and apparently Reuben Steiger was working this too.

Goo's article in the Post seems to be both playing up and played by the virtuality hype.  Though the article notes that Second Life has "400,000 registered members," it leads with the fact that  "about 100 lucky fans" were in avatar attendance.  It later claims, though, that this is a big shift:

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.

Hmm.  Then later, we hear (from the president of a brand marketing firm, no less) that this kind of thing has "elements of a gimmick to it."  That's quickly qualified:

But "the whole interplay between online and offline is something people that Second Life is targeting don't have a problem with," he said. "With the online-offline divide, they see it much less as a gimmick than as a real thing."

Uh-huh -- glad we cleared up the confusion there over that word "gimmick."  Of course, the "real thing" inevitably gets kind of surreal in Second Life, where Vega's avatar and guitar were created and controlled by someone other than Vega.  Goo later says:

One drawback is that avatars can't keep up with humans' real-time pace of facial expressions and gestures. In Vega's performance, the virtual guitar would not appear on cue and, at first, appeared to stick out of her elbow. The number of attendees at some concerts is limited because crowds take up too much processing power. Sometimes, planners of virtual-reality events ask attendees not to bring too many accessories, such as big hairstyles, because they take up too much bandwidth.

The "bandwidth of big hair" observation almost redeems the article and the guitar foibles are faithfully recorded on YouTube.  But rather than end this with a glitch report, Goo sums up her story (or a copy editor crops it to meet word limits?) by swinging back to the breathless enthusiasm of the promoter explaining how trippy it is that Vega is performing in a virtual world:

"There's a quality that doesn't exist in any other medium," said Bill Lichtenstein, president of the company that produces "The Infinite Mind," the radio show that put on the Vega performance, built a radio booth on Second Life, and plans to broadcast more interviews and performances. The virtual world, he said, simulates the real world in a way that tricks the brain into thinking it's real. "Sitting there in the audience, waiting for Vega to start, you got this feeling -- a sense of excitement."

So what's the real story here?  What was it like to be "in the audience" for this?  Was it great?

Honestly, I really don't know.  Perhaps it was really super.  I assume, like Mulder, that may people who were virtually present in Second Life really wanted to believe that they were attending a concert in cyberspace.

My brain, on the other hand, wasn't much tricked by the YouTube version.  I had the sense I was listening to Suzanne Vega sitting in a studio somewhere watching a screen.  The sound was only vaguely related to the images: a mix of camera angles on an avatar of Suzanne Vega and her recalcitrant guitar in a room full of other (quasi-famous "FIC"?) avatars that was more or less backdrop.  For The Queen & The Soldier, a video would have probably been better for the eyes -- maybe even a slideshow of those Waterhouse paintings that Thomas likes.

A little while ago, Profoky Neva had a blog post about Julian's recent appearance in SL where he was promoting Play Money (</hypeon> which is a great book, btw! </hypeoff>).    The review was titled "The Trouble with Dibbell" but, Neva claimed, the trouble really wasn't with Julian, it was with the disconnect between the wonderful concept of this sort of "live virtual appearance" thing as opposed to its clunky and jarring (virtual) reality.  Hockenberry's lead-in to Vega claims this is "Radio 6.0", but according to Neva's report, it can feel more like "Virtuality 0.2" 

But perhaps that's inevitable: Virtuality is, by definition, something which is almost but not really.  In other words, could it be that when this sort of thing really takes off, maybe there won't be a lot of hype about the fact that it is all so virtual?


Comments on The Bandwidth of Big Hair:

Cory Ondrejka says:

AFAIK, Suzanne Vega drove her own avatar (Infinite Mind sent some pictures over).

If you want to form an opinion about whether listening to live music in SL is a better -- or even a different -- experience than listening to a web cast or watching a video, you might want to spend an hour and attend one of the live music gigs in SL. There are plenty: http://secondlife.com/music has a list.

Posted Aug 21, 2006 5:58:25 PM | link

greglas says:

Hey Cory -- I saw a few blog reports to the contrary (saying that someone else was controlling the av) but I guess I shouldn't believe everything I read on a blog. ;-)

Thanks for the link -- will check it out.

Posted Aug 21, 2006 6:50:29 PM | link

Prokofy Neva says:

Hey, I'm old enough to remember when "My Name is Luka" was on the top 10 list, sheesh. But...I gave Vega a pass. Why?

o Lag -- these big events are always lag monsters where your avatar absolutely grinds to a halt, you can't move, you can't type, you can't take an IM, so you might as well be listening to the radio, eh?

o Idiocy of the organizers: to prevent lag, they publish notices on the forums that you must remove attachments, big prim hair, and weapons and such. But in a spasm of political correctness, they say that those wearing the clanking collars of the BDSM lifestyle, and furries wearing avatars with tails and ears and such (also attachments) will be allowed to come in their costumery. Jeez, talk about placating minorities that will scream victimization -- when the right thing to do is not discriminate gainst the big-hair gals (the correct SL term is "hoochie hair") but tell everybody to strip.

o Idiocy of the organizers, part II: given that only 40-100 avatars who are indeed those TP'd in by developers from their friends list, i.e. FIC, or those lucky enough to make their way into the sim to get tickets, the URL for the broadcast of the show needs to be published. So they publish non-working, non SL specific URLs meant to be heard outside SL anyway. Duh? They fail to get a working, shoutcast-type or other server going with the URL properly published so that people all over SL can do a "homebrew" of the event -- have the audio streaming but keep their own activities and convos layered over it. This isn't rocket science. As I keep saying, every girl named Heather running a club knows how to "paste a URL into the ground" i.e. put it on the land parcel media tab, to make it work with Quicktime. But I spent 45 minutes being bucked to the "tekkies" and "engineers" and even with them had to do WAY too much explaining of this simple issue.

You have to really want this event to be something more the one-hit wonder and one-shot media hype to attend to things like the URLs for the ground. They don't do that. So...the problem is obvious.

o Having said all that, I do have to say that the experience of live music in SL is really quite amazing. When you are in a smaller group with more of a home-grown musician like Frogg Marlowe who knows your name, greets you, passes the time, says thank you for the tips, etc. it is really something great -- you feel you are in your neighbourhood pub -- but with people from Japan, Portugal, California...hearing the live human voice penetrate all the typing of the world of SL is very moving. There are many down sides to voice of course because it creates all kinds of divides and ruins avatar immersion. But for some situations and occasions when there is mutual consent for it, it is moving.

o If you think the Washington Post or Cory Linden hyped live music, get a load of this from Mitch Kapor's speech:
http://www.3pointd.com/20060820/mitch-kapor-on-the-power-of-second-life/

“I had an unexpected spiritual experience two days ago about this very thing. I was watching on YouTube the video of the Suzanne Vega performance [in Second Life] she was doing with John Hockenberry on Infinite Mind, the NPR show. I’m watching them and what I’m seeing is her avatar, she’s playing guitar and there’s a live performance going on, I’m hearing it on my headphones because the audio is being streamed, but I’m watching a director cutting between multiple camera angles of a live concert. I udenrstand this is likely assembled in post-production, but there’s no technical reasaon it can’t be done live.”

“So what am I seeing here? There’s a studio audience for this radio broadcast. The studio, though, is a virtual one, not a real one. The camera is panning around, looking at residents, so I’m watching a kind of television broadcast of an event that is simulatneously real and virtual. And all of a sudden my sense of what was real expanded a million-fold. A fundamental shift of my awareness happened. Where this is going is in the full interpenetration of the terrestrial reality made up out of atoms, and virtual realities made up out of bits. It’s not a seperate thing, it’s not a cartoon, it’s not a game, it’s a much, much, much, much unimaginably larger reality, and that is powerful.”

Well...he's right.

Posted Aug 22, 2006 3:26:34 AM | link

Ace Albion says:

"They fail to get a working, shoutcast-type or other server going with the URL properly published so that people all over SL can do a "homebrew" of the event -- have the audio streaming but keep their own activities and convos layered over it."

A definite missed opportunity. One one level you could say if there's a shoutcast stream there's no big deal about being in SL to hear it- just have winamp or itunes or whatever running. You could do that, but it's more fun to go round someone's house and listen to their radio while you're with them, even if that's technically no different to listening to your own radio. That's at the heart of what makes SL potentially more than just IRC with pictures, it's the sense of presence. Even if that presence is in a house on a hill with friends and not in sight of the "event" itself. BBC Radio 1 broadcasts live gigs all the time, including intimate performances with very small crowds- the kind of numbers that make sense in SL events right now, so it can make sense.

Posted Aug 22, 2006 6:05:15 AM | link

greglas says:

PN, thanks for the comments -- just to keep the record straight: I don't think Cory was hyping live music, he was just helping me out with a URL. :-)

Re Mitch Kapor's comments:

"And all of a sudden my sense of what was real expanded a million-fold. A fundamental shift of my awareness happened. Where this is going is in the full interpenetration of the terrestrial reality made up out of atoms, and virtual realities made up out of bits. It’s not a seperate thing, it’s not a cartoon, it’s not a game, it’s a much, much, much, much unimaginably larger reality, and that is powerful."

You say he's right, but what can I say? Kapor is a superstar (for multiple reasons). He's also the chairman of the SL board. While it's really interesting to hear his impressions, I've got no clue why he said "much" here four times and I've got no clue what this "interpenetration" of real and virtual is he's talking about.

In defense of Kapor, he describes this as an "unexpected spiritual experience." Perhaps I've just missed my SL Road to Damascus or something.

This bit from the speech is interesting, though:

"Kapor showed a slide listing a number of technologies he considered disruptive when they appeared, including Lotus 1-2-3, UUNet, Real Networks, Wikipedia and Second Life."

The list is a bit metonymic, imho, but I'm on board with his generativity focus.

Posted Aug 22, 2006 6:28:20 AM | link

lewy says:

Larry Niven and John Varley have both written about virtual salons where the person you're "sitting" next to are actually thousands of miles away. Where virtual performances like this one are going in the short term is probably easily predictable thanks to them and their peers.

Interestingly enough Suzanne Vega is now the answer to at least two tech trivia questions. Unless I'm mistaken she's the artist for whom the entire MP3 format was optimized.

Posted Aug 22, 2006 8:47:38 AM | link

greglas says:

lewy> Unless I'm mistaken she's the artist for whom the entire MP3 format was optimized.

Yep, I think so. She mentions that in the YouTube video & Wikipedia has a mention of it too:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MP3

Posted Aug 22, 2006 11:14:35 AM | link

ron meiners says:

I think there's a principle here- at least thus far, the virtue of the virtual experience is in the individual and connective... and to the extent that previously "unreachable" celebs are now interacting with "me", the principle is whole and exciting. To the extent that we're trying to duplicate broadcast media, it doesn't work so well at all.

Posted Aug 22, 2006 12:19:03 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

It's a start.

And the first iterations of a thing always have more value as "hype" than as "the thing itself." Which is good. Because if the first ride in a "horseless carriage" was about the ride... we'd still be riding horses.

What will be more interesting to me is when, in addition to duplicating events that already take place in the real world -- concerts, cafes, conversations, carnality, casinos, clubs -- we start thinking about what connections (sorry) are possible in virtuality that we have NOT experienced in reality.

Almost all media go through a stage of emmulation where what we do is "the new version of the old thing on the new medium." So, with radio, we had people simply reading on the radio at first. And in TV, early TV broadcasts were just one camera pointed at a stage. Old media content interpreted through the new technology.

Which is what we've got here with S. Vega. She gives a concert in RL... maybe it's recorded. Maybe it's broadcast. OK. We have the tech (to some extent) to now replicate that in SL. So let's do it! Let's mock-up various other media experiences using different media. Fun stuff, yes. But still...

And that holds true for much of what happens in SL. Houses look like houses, built on land that looks like land. People do dances that look like dances in clubs that look like RL clubs with obnoxious, bad lighting straight out of disco and Vegas movies. Why? Because we are still in the emmulation phase. A very few (very good, imho) designers and players do "different things with the different tools." They're pushing not a tech envelope but an art envelope, a design envelope, a social, creative, experiential one.

So... here's the question: instead of a limited, small-audience, somewhat buggy, no-hoochie-hair mock-up of an event that emmulates a RL club concert... what COULD Suzanne Vega do in SL that she CAN'T ever do in RL? What sorts of things are available with those tools that are just impossible in RL? Kapor touches on it in his epiphinal speech... but is it really all about "camera angles" and simultanaeity of record/edit/broadcast?

One idea to get the ball rolling... maybe I could have seen what the SL crowd looked like from Suzanne's avatar's perspective? A "you are the performer" mode.

Posted Aug 22, 2006 12:56:29 PM | link

Jerry Paffendorf says:

Andy Havens > One idea to get the ball rolling... maybe I could have seen what the SL crowd looked like from Suzanne's avatar's perspective? A "you are the performer" mode.

Check out this video of Suzanne's guitar being built in SL. Live creation, programmed self-assembly, and audience participation in making sets is also new and beautiful.

Posted Aug 22, 2006 1:44:36 PM | link

Raph says:

I always feel like a naysayer when responding to these posts, but then again, I suppose the post itself was a bit of a naysaying post.

First off, of course, Vega's appearance is far from the first event of its kind. There had musical events; Habbo had musical events, and so on. And going back farther, of course, "celebrity" appearances in virtual worlds have a long history.

As with so many things surrounding SL, what we are witnessing with Kapor's breathlessness isn't actually NEW possibility, it's new witnesses to old possibility. This isn't to detract from the many major achievements of SL, particularly in a technical sense; the video of the guitar being made is, as Jerry points out, "new and beautiful" in a way that the actual event isn't.

Though that's an awfully shallow body for an acoustic dreadnought. The tone will be terrible. :)

Posted Aug 22, 2006 2:13:16 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

Jerry: Thanks for the link to the "guitar building" video. That was, indeed, very interesting. And, to me, maybe even more interesting than parts of the concert.

No offense, though... audience invovlement per se isn't a "new thing." Although you could certainly take it into the realm of "the new" depending on what you let them do ; )

Posted Aug 22, 2006 5:36:51 PM | link

monkeysan says:

Apologies for not 'getting it,' but I'm unclear what exactly was new and beautiful about the guitar video. It looked and sounded like an Apple ad for a 3D modeling program.

Which part was 'programmable self-organization,' and what does that mean?

What do you think was new and beautiful about it? That you can build stuff in SL? I guess I lack enough context to appreciate the act just by viewing the video.

Hints and spoilers appreciated. :)

Posted Aug 22, 2006 6:16:42 PM | link

Jerry Paffendorf says:

monkeysan > It looked and sounded like an Apple ad for a 3D modeling program.

hohoho, not yet my friend ;). Though you can find some slick user-created Apple products in SL, which is of course a whole 'nother interesting thing...

monkeysan > Which part was 'programmable self-organization,' and what does that mean?

Sorry to be unclear. Everything in SL is made out of basic building blocks called prims. You can script them to organize themselves and, say, make a music venue come together piece by piece--think watching a video of a shattered cup in reverse. A good example would be XyObject which Torley wrote about a while back saying:

No panel, just scripted prims: a Zennish rethinking of an already shifty paradigm. Slivers of elemental decadence, shiny in their cobalt and gold tones, flew out into shards and assembled before my very eyes. If I could see a nano-assembler at work, blown up billions of times, THIS would be it. XyObject is best watched in action, when the process of creation is alive.

monkeysan > What do you think was new and beautiful about it? That you can build stuff in SL?

Oh man, this is such a great bite-sized video of building in SL, so yes it is partly that you can build stuff in SL and that the video is so punchy in displaying how that works. A few things I think are beautiful about it, some bigger than the video itself:

*The guitar is built live from within the world by an independent user, and he owns it, it's his guitar
*It brings 3D creation, that crazy complex thing, down to earth watching it happen before your eyes (I've found that this video is very effective at helping people understand what's special and powerful about worlds like SL)
*It's just plain magic, so arresting, watching forms come into existence like this and I think it points the way to a future where many people will have these skills

And that's largely why I like it. Now we know! :) Another interesting building video like this one is Pierce P's 60 to Tank.

Just to rope this back in, thinking about what worlds like SL do uniquely from other media.

Posted Aug 22, 2006 8:56:00 PM | link

greglas says:

Ron> To the extent that we're trying to duplicate broadcast media, it doesn't work so well at all.

Hey Ron! Yep.

Andy> And the first iterations of a thing always have more value as "hype" than as "the thing itself." Which is good. Because if the first ride in a "horseless carriage" was about the ride... we'd still be riding horses.

Then again, if the only good thing about the car was the hype -- I'd still be riding a horse.

Andy> what COULD Suzanne Vega do in SL that she CAN'T ever do in RL? What sorts of things are available with those tools that are just impossible in RL?

Yes -- I think that's the right question.

Raph> First off, of course, Vega's appearance is far from the first event of its kind. There had musical events; Habbo had musical events, and so on. And going back farther, of course, "celebrity" appearances in virtual worlds have a long history.

Hey Raph! Right. Good point. And thanks for not citing the previous MUD-Dev conversation about this from 1989. Just kidding! :-)

Jerry> Just to rope this back in, thinking about what worlds like SL do uniquely from other media.

I think that's what Andy was driving at -- I guess my point in this is that whatever it is that SL might do, I'm not sure I see it happening here. Yes, someone other than here built her virtual guitar and it looks nice. But someone built her real guitar and that looks nice too. Yes, some people built the stadium for her and it looks nice. But some people also build real stadiums and they look nice.

I don't want to question your enthusiasm for all this, Jerry. It's clearly genuine and to paraphrase Andy, if some people weren't a bit excited about potentials, we'd all be worse off. I also do think there are things about SL (and all other VWs for that matter) that could make musical events in them unique.

But after years of reading fluff "virtual X" stories about events like this, I sometimes feel a bit of a reality check is in order.

Posted Aug 23, 2006 9:35:29 AM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Greglas wrote:

But after years of reading fluff "virtual X" stories about events like this, I sometimes feel a bit of a reality check is in order.

+1

--matt

Posted Aug 23, 2006 1:41:29 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

"Virtual reality check." Oh, that's a +2 at least : )

I keep thinking about the way my "poetry crew" in college kept trying, week after week in our (often scantily attended) jam sessions to push the boundaries of "what poetry is." Or at least perceived to be. Slam poetry hadn't been invented, but we were getting close at that point, in some ways. The open mic night where you simply let folks come up and read their stuff? That was the first half-hour...

The there was round-robin poetry, where everyone had to contribute to one piece (like groups building an amphitheatre in real time?). Then there was "Altnernate Song Lyric Bingo." Then ugly poetry. Then word association football poetry. Basically, play games with your words, your verse, your buddies, your editing, the whole "space" of a poetry reading and what it's "supposed" to mean.

Why? Because what "poetry" is "supposed to mean" had been really, really boring and dead since about the 1940's. It had been taken over by pop music. Very few people, comparatively, are interested in it and many who are... well, they're interested in what was written before 1940.

So... reinvent the space.

In VWs, we have a new space. And we're doing old things with it. Which is, as I say, the first thing we tend to do with new media. I am at once depressed and not at all surpised to find so much that is familiar in SL...

For example... why is it so hard for me to make a really, really tiny avatar? Really big, I understand; you don't want someone to be a walking, troubling, bumping, building. But why can't I be (easily, using the standard interface) 1-foot tall? It's up to others' interface choice as to whether or not you see my avatar's tag, and it's not like I can't disembody my viewpoint anyway and be an invisible eye... so why can't I be tiny? Weird...

Same with the choice to allow flying, but no burrowing. Underground can be fun, too. Like the sky, but dirtier... We are hemmed in by our conceptions of "this is land."

Posted Aug 23, 2006 2:56:48 PM | link

Norman says:

Was at the Vega concert in SL, and I also attended the Lawrence Lessig speach in SL several months ago. I can say with a pretty high degree of certainty that these event were considered boring by most of the atendees. In fact Lessig's avatar slumped over into the idle sleep pose 5 minutes into his spiel.

Bottom line, 'residents' attending these events are still people sitting in front of their computers. Not many people actually like to sit in front of their computers and watch something without interaction.

Posted Aug 28, 2006 8:00:22 PM | link