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September 18, 2006

MTV's Virtual Laguna Beach


Not in the Real World Anymore

September 18, 2006 :: Not in the Real World Anymore by RICHARD SIKLOS, The New York Times.

At MTV, reality has always been a moving target. Sixteen years ago, the network heralded the era of reality television with “The Real World.” Three years ago, it pushed the genre further with “Laguna Beach: The Real OC,” in which the mundane lives of a clique of pretty teenagers were presented in a way that appeared scripted and dramatic.

Now the cable channel aims to push the boundaries of false reality one step further. This week, MTV will introduce Virtual Laguna Beach, an online service in which fans of the program can immerse themselves — or at least can immerse digitized, three-dimensional characters, called avatars, that they control — in virtual versions of the show’s familiar seaside hangouts. “You can not only watch TV, but now you can actually live it,” Van Toffler, the president of the MTV Networks Music, Film and Logo Group, said in an interview.

Wednesday’s introduction of Virtual Laguna Beach is the first of three virtual worlds that MTV plans over the next year as part of an effort to steal a march on popular Web sites like MySpace and YouTube that have diverted the attention of the MTV audience. ... Of the two other virtual worlds planned, VMTV is a music destination where visitors can club-hop among hip neighborhoods, buy music, watch videos, sing karaoke or even start their own bands. The third virtual destination, LogoWorld, an offshoot of Logo, the gay and lesbian cable channel, will be designed entirely by its participants.

While avatars and virtual communities are a puzzling concept to many people over, say, 35, they are old hat to players of video games and to young people accustomed to revealing details of their lives online through social networking Web sites. Avatar-based social Web sites like Sims Online, Second Life and There.com have attracted hundreds of thousands of users.


“Our content is a starting point for them, not an ending point,” said Jeffrey B. Yapp, an MTV Networks executive who helped oversee the project. “There’s been a lot of discussion about letting go.”


To design Virtual Laguna Beach and the other forthcoming 3-D online communities, MTV enlisted Makena Technologies, the creator of There.com. Henry Jenkins, a professor at M.I.T. and the author of “Convergence Culture,” said such virtual communities were a natural next step for mainstream media companies seeking to deepen their connections to fans.

He said “Laguna Beach” was an interesting choice for the first venture because it had a heavily female audience and because the show itself was such a blur of real, unreal and sort of real. “It’s just layer upon layer of reality and fiction,” Mr. Jenkins said.

Some 22,000 people, drawn from a pool of 600,000 “Laguna Beach” watchers who registered for fan clubs on other MTV Web sites, signed up to participate in the test phase of Virtual Laguna Beach. Several hundred of those are designated as volunteer “lifeguards” who greet new arrivals online.

Cast members from the television show’s three seasons are not part of the planned online experience, although they could come as avatars of their own making.

Visiting Virtual Laguna Beach requires registering at the Web site, www.vlb.mtv.com, and downloading a piece of software. The first step is designing your avatar — which can be made to look as much like or unlike your actual self as you wish. During a demonstration last week at MTV, Mr. Bostwick played the role of an avatar named Violet Jade whom he configured — scrolling through an extensive menu of eye shapes, hair colors, skin tones and so on — to look like a typical character on the show: blond, tan and scantily clad.


“MTV speaks uniquely to a group of people who are endlessly fascinated with watching themselves,” she said.

Posted by jo at September 18, 2006 09:53 AM