Interview: Gary Hazlitt (Gary Hayes) Part 1

With the launch of the ABC and Telstra presences in Second Life, Gary Hazlitt (Gary Hayes) has become a well know figure for Australian SL users. He’s managed both projects and built the majority of the content as well. SLOz caught up with Gary to get some insight on the builds done and the ones coming up.

Lowell: Can you describe a little about your background in RL?

Gary: Sure. From an SL perspective I am the Head of MUVE Development at the Project Factory and also the Director of the Laboratory for Advanced Media Production since 2005. Prior to that I have always had positions at the bleeding edge of new service delivery including Senior Development and Producer at BBC New Media for eight years and Interactive Producer in LA during 2004. All the positions have given me a strong grounding in every digital tool there has been, so I won’t list them, and I have found having a range of ‘natural’ skills very useful in SL so my other ‘passion’ areas such as music composer/producer, sound design, professional photography and travel writer have been useful in metaverse development.

Lowell: When did you first get involved with SL and had you been involved with other virtual worlds prior?

Gary: I may be showing my age but I was one of the first to have a personal homepage on the web back in 1994 which had lots of experimental VRML elements and I also linked/joined this to pseudo-3D virtual worlds like Cybertown. In 1995, I joined the BBC as a new media producer as part of a team of 12 at the BBC Multimedia Centre, I did lots of cool projects and worked partly on one called ‘The Mirror’ – six themed VRML virtual worlds that had avatars wandering around talking about BBC videos amongst other things on large screens. A clunky time for virtual worlds but the potential was obvious even then for new cross-over formats. As well as producing many to-air services such as interactive and broadband TV, I worked on several BBC R&D projects (in departments such as Imagineering) looking at artificial life, TV-cross over games and artificial intelligence, many based in shared virtual social networks. I have closely followed the sims revolution, been in and out and back in various MMORPGs and indeed joined SL back in 04 when I was living in Santa Barbara. SL was a quiet place back then and was pretty limited community wise. I rejoined early last year just ahead of the swarm. The Laboratory for Advanced Media Production which I direct also has many projects that utitlise Second Life including Emergence, Inworld and City Games all detailed on the site.

Lowell: Can you give your thoughts about the Telstra and ABC builds – what were the biggest challenges and rewards?

Gary: I can’t talk directly about the thinking behind the Telstra project as you may expect, so will talk about my general approach to 3D immersive social network design and give more detail on the ABC project. The challenge with any build is to make sure the client has prioritised the experience for the user. To not talk about stuff that will be pushed at them (web 1.0) but about what the users should feel and be able to do. It is all about ‘doing’, and doing can take many forms – the most important being ‘creating our own stories’ by socialising in these spaces. So the spaces and specific builds must have character and allow play. Much of the philosophy of my approach for more corporate properties or brands entering into SL for the first time can be found in quite a few posts on my blog. A recent post talks about the L Word and AOL and 13 tips for new entrants.

In terms of what my role was on these projects, for ABC I am credited with direction and build. For the Pond project (as it states on the official press release), I produced and developed it. In fact, I built most of what you see in the Pond – having done an audit the other day I worked out I created 21 000 prims of the 22 800 on the islands, but if you had time you could find that out yourself! I did everything (including terraforming and layout) apart from the Opera House and Bridge because of time and also as they were add ons and partly to decorate the race track – which will be the real draw there, eventually. Both of the recent Oz projects are widely reported as being R&D so the investment and expectation are relatively low. The key for both companies is to get as much learning as possible from these islands, and use that to build on for the good of everyone in Australia.

Back to approach. I always begin by saying SL and any 3D MUVE is a social network so what can we bring that will be attractive to users (new and old) and that will develop a community and a sense of belonging. Once you have tha,t any advertising, product or media that you want them to watch will be part of the producer/audience agreement – much the same as ads are on TV – “you give me a good time, I will be happy with your ads”. It is great to see both spaces slowly becoming a ‘home’ type destination for users, but there is a long way to go yet. The old ‘build it and they will come’ needs a good dose of ‘and be around when they do, with lots of events and friendly chat’, so it has been interesting to see how each company has handled its ‘potential’ community.

I advise on the approaches but it does require a people resource to follow through and that is not easy for some companies – but this is not a website you create and leave, so new entrants need to think carefully about on-going community management. I think SLOz has reported a good deal on this issue too. Another issue that is often overlooked, and a challenge for incumbant media companies, is the rights issue. You often hear people say “this and this club are way more popular than here” and the real reason for that is that the clubs and various other big social areas are streaming internet radio or linking to full length ‘illegal’ movies in-world without any recourse to the rights holders. In some cases they are charging inworld for the privilege. Well known media companies cannot do this and have to negotiate rights out of respect for the creators of movies and music but also to not be sued by them. The creators are unlikely to sue the owner of Club X for example as they know it is not worth their while. But moving on.

To make the spaces feel like ‘home’ you need to build depth and an inherent organic, naturalistic feel to the place, which is the thing I get most satisfaction from – creating a space you can explore and always find something new. So it is great to see couples and groups wandering (flying) around areas that don’t necessarily have ‘stuff to see’ but have an atmosphere. It creates a loyalty to the brand that put it there. Also it is about creating personality, environments that have character. I am always surprised at many other corporate builds that are of cities, or whole town centres – they are great to visit once or twice, but you don’t really feel like you could hangout there or call home, I find them rather cold. With ABC particularly, the small team agreed on general ‘naturalistic’ principles and then layered on the other themes such as the alien thing, hidden clubs, odd Australiana structures, part outback, part sci-fi and so on. It was exciting watching this come together. With the ABC project we also wanted to leave breathing space for the community, so we made sure it wasn’t overbuilt – and that comes back to other brands who cover the land with concrete jungles. Many spaces require specific look and feel and function, big dance clubs, meeting areas with screens and so on – these are important too for the education and social aspect, but I have been lucky in both ABC and BigPond to be able to go beyond that in may ways. The real reward for me is watching users ‘be’ in these spaces, learning from what was intended to how they are being used. For instance, the Billabong Bar I knew would be a draw and I worked hard to make that ‘organic’ and it now has as much traffic (albeit early low numbers) as the bridge and opera house combined. To get numbers as high as some of the main dance or established sims (Lost Gardens of Apollo springs to mind) does require an iterative response to how the areas are being used. I hope this will happen.

    Part 2 – Australians in SL, recommended spots in SL for new users and future projects.


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