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IQ News: I Want My I-TV

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Developers and Web sites alike look for the MTV of the Net.
This year, as in the past, the New York new media and music conference Plug.In was dominated by Web publishers scrambling to be labeled the MTV of the Internet. Any site that achieves this so-far elusive goal would be able to claim that it had done for music online what MTV did for music on TV in the early '80s.
But in this third year New York new media analyst firm Jupiter Communications sponsored Plug.In, there were signs that a form of online music media seems to be evolving, even if no one, including MTV Online, has yet achieved the impact that MTV did during cable's initial explosion. At this point, however, it looks as though developers of online publishing tools, not media companies, may hold the lead.
For example, last week San Francisco-based software developer Macromedia added interactive music videos to its ShockRave site, which features all kinds of content, including games and cartoons that use Macromedia plug-ins. With cooperation from Virgin Records and Coolsville/Capitol Records/EMI, the company developed animations that accompany songs and give users something to play with as they listen to the music. Neo swingers Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, French electronica lounge band Air and teen pop act 1000 Clowns each supplied songs as the basis for Macromedia creations to build interactive animations. Voodoo Daddy's "Go Daddy-O" gets an animated dance floor to swing; a viewer can manipulate its moving figures. Air's song "Sexy Boy" functions like an interactive pop-up video, with informative blurbs appearing on the monitor as users scroll their cursors over different areas. The 1000 Clowns interactive animation uses psychedelic abstractions including shifting cats, foot prints and fleas that move to the beat of the song "Kitty Kat Max."
If the site sounds as though it is ground zero for next generation MTV, that's not its intent--ShockRave is primarily aimed at developers. However, it also gets enough traffic to hint that its audience is much broader, averaging about 55,000 visitors a day or 500,000 to 600,000 daily page views, according to Steve King, vice president and general manager for ShockRave. Underscoring its consumer appeal, the site is part of the DoubleClick Network, which sells ads and sponsorships to support it. Also, Macromedia is working on forming an electronic commerce partnership to increase revenue on the site.
When Macromedia creates interactive videos, it will freely give away its creations to the record labels and others who are interested in it. It is also willing to create completed videos--Macromedia is referring to the process as syndication--for labels and bands that want to be involved in this new form of music video. King anticipates syndicating completed work mostly to the international market, believing that domestic companies will be more interested in creating original content using software licensed from Macromedia. "As software developers we build examples that people can have for free," King explains. "The thing that makes the value is the interface and the band. [Companies] will see how the engine is done. But to have something successful, they'll have to do something with the user interface and the band."
Though Macromedia identifies itself as a software company, it is in the business of spurring media and content companies to develop innovative applications, similar to Intel's focus on supporting content that leverages the Pentium II processor. As such, it is not surprising that such a company may be closer to developing the MTV of the Internet than MTV itself. "It has to be something dramatically different," says Mark Hardie, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "It should be something I can't get elsewhere, like MTV was at one time."
"It's weird Macromedia is behind it," he adds. "But they may break the format and someone else will run with it."
That seems to be exactly the plan. Macromedia has already pitched MTV on the idea of using its technology so that the cable giant can become, appropriately, the MTV of the Internet.
Also talking to MTV Online is Thomas Dolby Robertson, the musician better known for his '80s synth pop, such as the novelty hit "She Blinded Me with Science," than for his Silicon Valley software company Headspace. Robertson has taken up the cause to, as he calls it, "sonify" the Net, creating musical or audio backdrops similar to those that exist in most TV programming. San Mateo, Calif.-based Headspace has created a plug-in called Beatnik that helps Web sites make noise, if they've been programmed to do so. "If RealAudio is the radio and LiquidAudio is the record store, then Beatnik is the soundtrack," Robertson says.
The technology is expected to soon move into the mass market. Beatnik will likely be incorporated into the newest version of one of the major Web browsers. Robertson hopes the deal will help popularize the audio software, since users won't be forced to download it. "Really, you want the browsers to support you out of the box," he says.
Robertson has licensed Beatnik to Sun Microsystems, which incorporated it into Java, as well as to WebTV and Macromedia. He also works with ad agencies to bring sound to clients' sites, such as the "sonified" site created for 7-Up by Young & Rubicam.
While Robertson may help MTV Online achieve its Internet aspirations, some believe his technology is a solution that fixes existing problems caused by temporary bandwidth constraints. "When more broadband evolves, restraints are removed," says Thomas Roli, publisher of Stoneham, Mass.-based Webnoize, a site that tracks developments in the music and Internet industries. "Thomas' solution is a wonderful integrated solution to add interactivity to a Web site. But broadband may advance that as well."
But whether Robertson is the savior of online music content or not, he does seem to be right about Internet users wanting the experience to be easy. Any difficulty in combining ease-of-use with cool audio may be the biggest stumbling block in the quest for compelling online music media.
"If sound adds benefit it's great," says Jose Caballer, senior designer at Razorfish, who just heard a demo of Robertson's software. "People demand speed. If you give them something with animation and sound that's slow and cumbersome, they'll go away, regardless of how cool it is."
For example, on a recent afternoon, Forrester's Hardie was having a difficult time accessing Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's interactive video on ShockRave. Though Hardie thought he had all the necessary plug-ins, including Macromedia's Flash, Shockwave and Director, he couldn't get to the video. And then he gave up trying. "This is a bad experience if you ask me," he says. "And you wonder why guys like me get frustrated."