When I signed up for [State of Play](http://www.nyls.edu/stateofplay) as a member of the press (“blogger”), I didn’t expect to be invited to interview the CEO of [There.com](http://there.com/), an up-and-coming virtual world. Previously I had heard of There.com before but spent most of my time in [Second Life](http://secondlife.com/).
That fact probably didn’t go down too well with [Michael Wilson](http://www.nyls.edu/pages/5614.asp) but he laughed it off. He must have heard this many times before. Over dinner, I set out to learn if There.com had a unique position in this increasingly crowded realm of virtual worlds.
I started by admitting that it was relatively easy installing There (though I forgot to ask why the website was not compatible with Firefox!). Objects also seemed to load faster than Second Life. To be fair, the graphics and rendering in There is not as detailed as in Second Life.
Michael explained that there was a strategy behind this. The priority was to make it easy for people to get onto There. I agreed – some of my friends have been unable to run Second Life because their home computers or internet connections were too slow.
I commented that the Avatars in There looked too much like the Sims, though. Michael replied that this too was a conscious decision based on the ‘Uncanny Valley’. Up to a certain point, when characters look similar to humans, people feel an emotional connection with them. But as the character is made to look more human, this connection takes a dip, then it slowly comes back up again. There.com was designed to receive the greatest emotional connection, at the peak of the curve. Check out this [Wikipedia article](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_Valley) for a graphical explanation.
So how else was There.com different from its rival Second Life?
Michael elaborated on the way content was managed on There.com. Firstly, it’s PG13. So you won’t see anyone wearing genitalia on their head, walking about. (At that instant, I recalled the times I’ve seen nudity and lewd positions in Second Life by simply going from sim to sim.)
The mention of “PG13”, however, prompted me to say that it therefore seemed to be mainly for teens. Michael cited some statistics to the contrary, indicating that There.com users in some regions were older than that. Still, I feel the impression There.com gives, with its simplified Sims-like Avatars, is still that of a virtual world targetting youth.
Another difference is that There.com has a say in what type of content goes in, whereas in Second Life it’s free for all. I guess both sides have their merits. There is thus a feeling of ‘safety’ in There – which suddenly gave me this imagery that it was like the Singapore Government! I did see Michael’s point that the ‘tenant mix’ had to be well thought through.
On a similar note, closeness with the community is probably another difference. Every month, There users are consulted as to which top 10 features they want to have, and the company will work on it.
Sustainability was another issue brought up, what with the high proportion of inactive users in other virtual worlds like Second Life. I mentioned to Michael that I heard the Beastie Boys were making a virtual appearance in There tomorrow (7pm EST). He said yes, then listed a slew of other celebrities all slated to make appearances as well. Cleverly, this was done through a deal with Capitol Records, which uses There as a marketing arm.
The most impressive feature to me, was how There was able to track users’ responses to advertising in detail. Also, it is able to place context-specific ads around users, so if they’re talking about a particular subject, a related ad appears. I didn’t get the impression that advertising was going to be the main business model but it has potential for growth. Michael himself was from eBay, and a personal interest and stake in There led to him working full-time as There’s CEO.
With the serious part of the interview done, we chatted about other things. I told him a little bit about our own history and culture. I learnt he arrived here in a private jet. Whatever gets you “There” I suppose! As we touched on US education policy and politics, I asked if he was Republican or Democrat.
Michael looked me in the eye and said, “I’m American.” Which was the best answer, really.