Virtual fashion mag Second Style calls it a day

Since 2006, Second Style has produced a glossy, high-quality magazine covering fashion in Second Life. The attention to detail has always stood out for me, so it’s sad to hear that the magazine’s creators have announced they are calling it quits:

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The downturn in the Second Life economy has been difficult to combat, and our resources have become too low to maintain the magazine any longer. We’ve discussed numerous options, cutting back here or there…but it wouldn’t be fair to anyone – – our staff, our readers, or our advertisers.

It’s a shame and it further emphasises the perception issue Linden Lab faces around being in decline, even though at worst stagnation can be argued and there are even some early signs of turnaround under new executive leadership.

I still wonder how any turnaround can generate significant momentum when dedicated people like those at Second Style can’t see the viability of keeping going. Virtual pets and Facebook integration seem a little shallow in comparison don’t you think? Even if you a person that thinks fashion is the height of vacuousness.

Interview – Estelle Parnall, Blue Mars Fashionista

Blue Mars is a virtual world that continues to evolve, somewhat under the radar for a lot of people. Over the past week it has announced pricing changes that reflect a change in approach from one of establishment to one of consolidation.

Australian designer Estelle Parnall is based in northern Victoria and she obviously sees some opportunities in Blue Mars, shifting most of her focus from Second Life to there in recent months. I used that as an excuse to delve into Blue Mars a little more whilst profiling an interesting Australian who creates some notable content.

Interview

The interview below was done over a month ago, so Estelle has now successfully opened her full presence in Blue Mars, in addition to an art gallery (pictured left).

Lowell: What made you decide to leave SL?

Estelle: I havent actually left SL, I still have my shops on half a sim and a small number of satellites, but I suppose I have halted development since about October last year. In the months previous to this I think the market fell considerably (if my sales were anything to go by, but I am sure I wasnt alone). The clothing market in SL is saturated and the freebie culture certainly wasnt assisting the market to be viable.

Lowell: What attracted you to Blue Mars?

Estelle: I was attracted to the superior graphics, and the concept of quality control. The idea of getting in as an early adopter also appealed to me. Since being there a while I can say as a clothing designer that the clothes I can make in Blue Mars are far superior to that I could make in Second Life. No horrible templates or prim skirts, or ill-fitting sculpts……you have greater freedom with your virtual pallette.

Lowell: How has your experience been in Blue Mars so far?

Estelle: On the whole I can say I have really enjoyed it. Learning new 3D skills has been challenging but enjoyable.

Lowell: What limitations have you run into that you’d like to see resolved, and on the other side of the coin, what’s working better for you?

Estelle: There are a number of bugs that need resolution,, and of course the ones that rate most highly for me concern the fit of clothes. But I feel confident that Avatar Reality is working with us to resolve these issues.

Lowell: What are your plans for the coming 6-12 months?

Estelle: I am developing my own city which I hope to release in the next week or so which will showcase my designs and will include an Art Gallery. After that I hope to just improve my skills, create more content and become a major merchant.

More than fashion

From email discussions I’ve had with Estelle over the past month, it’s obvious Blue Mars are very focused on maintaining a happy foundation community. There’s certainly momentum there as well, no doubt helped by both the real and perceived challenges Second Life has at present. In Estelle’s case, her work in Blue Mars has delivered a content creation role for the Martian Boneyards project by TERC, a scientific collaboration game funded by the National Science Project (US). It’s these sort of projects that provide the real indications that the diversification of education in virtual worlds is on the increase. OpenSim growth is a key part of the equation, but environments like Blue Mars are gaining a footing too.

Now if only some real interoperability standards were on the near horizon…

Frenzoo goes 3D

Fashion-centric virtual world Frenzoo have announced the availability of 3D scenes within the world via its public beta.

You can read more on Frenzoo here. I also took the opportunity to ask Frenzoo CEO Simon Newstead for his thoughts on the closure of Metaplace, and he pointed me to some thoughts he’d already written on the topic. There’s plenty of challenges out there for offerings like Frenzoo, but they’re certainly working towards making themselves on of the survivors.

Update: Frenzoo have provided a detailed blog post on the launch.

Interview – Simon Newstead, CEO of Frenzoo

Simon Newstead of FrenzooBack in May, we covered Frenzoo, a fashion-centric world with a lot of promise. Since that time, Frenzoo has continue to grow and has received further funding to continue its development.

CEO Simon Newstead is an expatriate Australian based in Hong Kong, and I took the opportunity to get some insight into Frenzoo‘s progress and future plans. He also discusses the role of Robin Harper and Anshe Chung, integration with services like Facebook and quite a bit more.

The take-home message for me is Frenzoo‘s focus on content creation, placing it amongst a handful of other players dedicated to that space. Fashion’s about creativity, so it’ll be interesting to see what growth trajectory Frenzoo takes. Read on for the interview:

Lowell: Can you give a brief biography of your career pre-Frenzoo?

Simon: Sure, before jumping into the online world with Frenzoo, I worked in Internet networking with Juniper Networks, the upstart competitor to Cisco.

There I was leading the Emerging Technologies team for Asia. That was a great job, dealing with customers in Korea and Japan through to emerging countries like India and Vietnam. Learning how and how not-to introduce new solutions to market, winning over early adopters, feeding requirements back to development teams – a lot of fun.

Before that I was in Melbourne with Juniper where I worked with Telstra to help design their 2nd generation broadband infrastructure (their DSL network). That was a great job for a young engineer, although I recall a lot of late nights living in their labs πŸ™‚

Lowell: How would you describe Frenzoo’s progress over the past 12 months?

Simon: Great! After a slow start we’re starting to find our groove – a fledgling online world and 3d chat & creation community is up and running. Still early days but revenue starting to come in and growth picking up.

When we started our beta a year ago we had nothing – no users and a website with virtually no functionality: I remember an early tester making a comment “I love my avatar so much… but ummm what can I do with it?” It was a rude awakening, but all the early feedback helped us learn and adapt quickly – I really do subscribe to the “Fail Fast” startup school of thinking.

Since then we have learned a lot on what makes people them invest time and money and what they want out of Frenzoo. We’ve added and iterated our product countless times based on all the customer feedback: a big part of our culture – we gather a lot of user feedback, run regular usability tests, analyze usage data etc.

A turning point was introducing User generated content via our own web creation tool as well as 3ds modeling and collada import function. This has been great – the creative folks just love to design new things. When the world around you changes so much there is always inspiration for something new. People who love to mod sims love our environment – in fact some of our top content creators today are huge The Sims modders and creators.

Six months ago, the only things in the shop were made by Frenzoo, with limited choice. Now all the content on the marketplace is coming from the community and there are many thousands of diverse creator items to shop from and growing each day.

Lowell: What’s the company’s funding situation at present?

Simon: Earlier in the year we secured a solid round of funding from ASI – the Skype co-founders and other important angel investors. That takes us a long way to realizing our vision – by the time we consider the next phase of funding we should have completed the core development and started to ramp up audience and monetization.

Lowell: Virtual goods commerce is currently the core of your revenue model – can you explain a little how both you and designers can make money?

Simon: Sure. We run a dual currency system – we have silver and gold coins. Silver coins are the earned currency (being active on the site), gold coins are bought currency. When an item is purchased by a user using Gold coins, the creator of that item gains the Gold Coins (Frenzoo takes a small commission). Gold Coins can be sold for real money on 3rd party sites like First Meta Exchange and Anshe X. Those sites also allow transfer to and from other virtual currencies such as Linden dollars and IMVU credits.

Lowell: How many staff does Frenzoo have and are they still all based in Hong Kong?

Simon: We have a team of 10 folks – 7 engineers and 3 designers. Apart from that it’s myself, and Ceci, our marketing lead. We’re based in Hong Kong and we also have a couple of fantastic remote interns in the US who do a fantastic job helping with the community management.

We’re also lucky to have three very helpful strategic advisors – Robin Harper (ex Linden Labs) and Anshe Chung – Ailin Graef and Guntram Graef have really helped with giving us guidance and the insights from their considerable experience.

Lowell: What’s the geographic breakdown of your userbase at present?

Simon: Most members are coming from the US, however we have a healthy international mix from Europe and Asia. Australia is in the mix, a few percent of our base. We have localization to over 10 languages, including Japanese, Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, German, Russian, Dutch etc It’s one of the many advantages of being purely browser based – it’s easy to add this. Right from the start we wanted to make this a global offering, not just English only.

Lowell: What percentage of the designers are making significant money?

Simon: We’re just getting going, no millionaires I’m aware of yet πŸ™‚

The majority of our creators are doing it for enjoyment – it’s a lot of fun dreaming up new designs, meeting people, entering contests, being creative.

For those folks when they earn a few bucks in the process that’s just a bonus. However we’re now starting to see the first few professional operations coming onto the site with the aim to make money. Anshe Chung Studios is one example, it’s also easy for them to publish their created items to both Frenzoo and other platforms like IMVU. We’re also looking forward to introducing 3D scenes so, for example, creators of Second Life environments and props can explore our platform.

Lowell: What mistakes that competitors have made are you hoping to avoid?

Simon: I have a lot of respect for the other avatar communities out there, I’m a big fan of Second Life in particular for their creative and open content environment. One thing we are striving to do is make our user interface really simple to use, and also make creation fun and accessible to everyone – in fact most of our active active members have created their own items.

As we are web online world compared with most others who are client based, we have our own unique set of challenges and opportunities. For example cross browser differences and testing is a hassle (don’t get me started on IE6!), but on other hand web based means we support Mac and PC as well as being able to quickly mash up and integrate – e.g. post pics to Facebook etc.

Lowell: Speaking of Facebook, do you have any plans for integration with other web applications like that?

Simon: We’d like to do more web integration next year for sure. Once we have built out most of our core platform we plan to swing back and look at off site integration and add what makes sense, be it Facebook app or other platforms and techniques. Whether that app might be avatar chat or creation or a mix is still something we have to think about.

Mobile is something also we considered when we settled on our 3D rendering engine – in fact Unity3d which we use is one of the leading engines for iPhone 3D games today. It’s an interesting future possibility for us and technically feasible.

Lowell: Who do you see as Frenzoo’s main competitors?

Simon: In terms of web 3D community with UGC marketplace and creation tools we are first to market, to my knowledge. Actually even in client solutions, I haven’t seen similar to our accessible fashion design tool.

Actually most of our energy is built on listening to our users and improving our service. Whilst we monitor and learn lessons from other virtual worlds (e.g. Second Life and IMVU who have built up successful economies), we’re mainly focussed on our users and improving for them.

Online World Frenzoo - 3D Avatar of Simon_is_yetiLowell: Do you have an estimated date for Frenzoo coming out of beta?

Simon: Not for some time yet…

Beta really is a mark that we are in constant iteration and improvement, it’s a label that encourages us to always be listening and improving. Of course, we’re running a virtual economy today and security and robustness are important but we like the idea of being in beta mode and responsive – it’s a cultural attribute.

Lowell: What’s the roadmap for Frenzoo over the coming year?

Simon: Now UGC is kicked off, our next big move is “social”. The first step is 3D chat, which we just launched 2 months ago. It’s pretty sparse now but we will be building it out. As part of the social drive we’ll be introducing 3D scenes, which will be the biggest upgrade to the site since launch. This will let people be creative and social a lot more than today where the avatar is in 3D but the scene is just in static 2D. A 3D online world in Frenzoo has been one of the top requests from our community.

Our goal within the next few months is to have a fun user created environments – dance parties people can hang out and virtual chat in, maybe beaches for moonlight walks, glamorous catwalk shows, and hopefully lots of ridiculously pimped out apartments πŸ™‚

We’ll also continue to build out the creative tools and then start to do more mashups and integrations on the web to help people share their experiences easier.

Lowell: Can you shed light on the core Frenzoo user?

Simon: Sure. Our age ranges from 13 all the way to 30 and beyond. Several of our most active members are in their 30s, 40s and older. Our average age today is hovering around 18-20 years old, and we skew very heavily towards female. One of our goals over coming months is to also make Frenzoo interesting and engaging for us guys.

Lowell: As an expat Aussie, what’s your take on the virtual worlds industry here?

Simon: Well, I’m a big fan of some of the virtual world personalities who live in Australia – folks such as metaverse bloggers Tateru, Anstia and yourself, Steve Cropper who runs the Life On-Line show etc Also it’s nice to see some virtual world developers in Australia such as VSide/Exit Reality…and in general some great tech projects such as Google Wave out of Sydney. I’m always rooting for more Aussies to make it on the global stage πŸ™‚

Frenzoo: Avatar Style

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Although originally billed as being for teenage girls, the Frenzoo concept has proven to be of interest to a much wider audience. Even though it’s early days yet, the site still being in beta, there’s already a thriving community of folks participating in Frenzoo, with a wide range of ages and nationalities, and both genders, being strongly represented.

What is Frenzoo about? Primarily, it’s about sharing style – not just "high fashion" or "mainstream" style, but whatever takes your fancy; as long as you stay within the terms of service, and your images fit into the PG category, your style will be celebrated by the Frenzoo community.

Ztylist

Your Ztylist is your avatar in Frenzoo. In addition to personalising their face, there’s a wide range of beauty products, hairstyles, clothing and accessories to choose from to create the look you desire for your avatar. Once you have chosen your Ztylist’s look, you can also alter the way they move (their Pose), and change the way their background (Home) looks. The Pose is a looped animation; you can easily choose when in the sequence to take an image (Snapshot) to get the effect you are after.

Shop

One of the ways to achieve your personal look is to shop for items. Clothing, hair and accessories are made by the Frenzoo team, and also by VIPs, who are able to create items to stock their shops with. Though currently somewhat limited in range, the number of items is growing daily, and the range of styles covered also continues to expand. Right now, only Frenzoo team members have the ability to create make-up, though they are always open to suggestions as to what they should add to the collection next.

Create

Of course, if the shop doesn’t carry just the item you desire, you can always make your own. Making personalised garments, shoes and accessories is a snap with the item creation tools supplied. There’s a stage for cutting, for making the pattern for the fabric, and for adding details like buckles, pockets and gems. Simple items can be done very rapidly – more complicated items take more fiddling and more time, but are eminently possible. The original shape of your item is determined by the template you choose initially: a ball-gown cannot be cut to make jeans, but jeans can easily be cut down to make shorts.

Right now, VIP status is gained by demonstrating your capability and interest to the Frenzoo team – look in the Frenzoo forums for the appropriate information.

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The Zoo

Under the Zoo tab, you can get a quick overview of what other people’s Ztylists are wearing, and you have a quick link to their profile pages. Also under the Zoo tab are the Clubs, which are a great way to meet and communicate with people who have the same interests as you.

Shows

Shows are a fun and entertaining way to share your outfit creation and compilation abilities! It’s also a good place to make new friends. Each show has a theme; past themes have included Barbie, Emo and Cosplay (Superheroes, in this case). The idea is that you dress according to the theme, and then everyone gets a chance to vote for their favourite outfit. To keep things fair, the Frenzoo team has ensured that you can’t vote for yourself, and asks that you not spam people asking for their votes!

Share

Frenzoo has made it easy to share around the Frenzoo love – there are a wide range of banners and logos available to place on other web sites, and it’s also easy to place snapshots of your Ztylist on blogs, Myspace, and other similar places.

Forum

The Frenzoo forum is essentially like any other forum – it contains useful information about the site, alerts users to upcoming shows and changes to Frenzoo, and is a great place to carry on conversations with other users in the community. Moderation is in place to keep the atmosphere friendly and safe – if you wouldn’t say it to a 13 year old, don’t say it here.

Verdict

Frenzoo is a nifty piece of work, and there are more improvements to come. It may or may not be attractive to you now, but be aware that there are many changes in the pipeline – and one or more of those might make the difference that gets you intrigued.

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