Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hell is watching other people shop -- United Nations Citizens

Various blogs and sites--including that of “Botgirl”--are already commenting on the announcement of the impending opening of “United Nations Citizens," which, we are told, will be “a virtual living environment for consumers and businesses...”

A screenshot from UNC--palm trees and an Apple store. Why would a shopping Utopia necessarily require palm trees? Is it some visual metaphor suggesting that this new world will be evocative of some consumeresque Garden of Eden? Or are palm trees just easier to make than other trees? The buildings certainly look fucking uninspired.

The following announcement came out just yesterday:

NEW YORK, NY. — Jan. 13, 2010 — Making use of the core graphics engine used in the smash hit AVATAR, Cisco Systems and Equifax have partnered with Heads & Tails TV, Faithful Friends TV & Montage Systems, to create United Nations Citizens, a virtual living environment for consumers and businesses, unveiled today at the 99th Annual National Retailers Federation Expo in New York.

United Nations Citizens is a collaboration of numerous international partners that have invested millions of dollars into technologies that provide e-tailers with a unique virtual world. Featuring lifelike avatars for both stores and consumers, United Nations Citizens enables online commissioned sales assistants and paid greeters to become faithful friends helping consumers with questions and purchases.

“We’ve created the world’s first virtual workplace where real people can actually hold down good paying jobs,” said Anthony Loiacono, CEO at Heads & Tails TV. “We’ve created a whole new way of putting people to work, selling the products and services of more than 330 name brand retailers.”

A number of next-generation features are used in United Nations Citizens, including in-world HD television screens with passion point programming and active website links; audio chat capabilities with paid greeters from in-world companies; state-of-the-art media file servers to ensure a pure HD experience; hyper-local programming opportunities, such as high school sports, festivals, fashion, game and social media networks; plus mobile and online extensions for a more robust experience.

"Advances in virtual and augmented technologies allows content to reach audiences in methods that were speculation in the prior decade. Cisco Digital Media Creative Services along with global content and innovative partners such as Heads & Tails will provide solutions that address the content demands of the new decade as showcased at the National Retail Federation show in New York City” said Dos Dosanjh, World Wide Customer Solutions Manager of Marketing with Cisco Digital Media Creative Services.

More than 330 stores already are members of United Nations Citizens through affiliate marketing agreements, including Apple iTunes, Microsoft Store, Walmart, and Sky Mall, providing customers a unique way to view products and services in a setting that replicates real-world environments. Member companies are able to scale real-life presentations, combined with data collection, personalized product placement and digital signage, through seamless delivery over the web and mobile networks. a UNITED NATIONS CITIZEN positions are open for tour guides, shop owners, commissioned sales persons, trainers, doctors, celebrities, translators and more. Additionally, social networking jobs like bartender and waitress are available with opportunities for advancement within the UNITED NATIONS CITIZEN world. And, you get paid!

So it seems to be a virtual world based upon shopping, working simple customer service type jobs, socializing, and generally farting around going to virtual bars and entertainment venues...and maybe doing some driving around and shooting. At first blush, it seems like something that should be perfectly appealing to Barry Collins, but what about the rest of us?

You go and look at the web site for this and it’s flashy and slick, and not unattractive in a vapid sort of way--but it doesn’t tell you much. Will it be easy to master? Does it scale? Will there be cool and unusual shapes and skins? Will thousands upon thousands of happy shiny avatars be able to hold hands?

Fuck if I know. I sure couldn't tell from the insipid goddamn promotional fluff-n-puff they have up.

There are some videos, but not a lot of images. Much of what you do see is repetitive--the same bits and locales over and over (though sometimes shot from different angles). The text is lacking in detail and incredibly badly written, with typos, poor grammar, and syntax that suggests that the writer has “just got off the boat get.”

But let's talk about stuff. After all, this new world is about consumption, and the engine that drives consumption is stuff. And yes, this place will apparently have plenty of stuff. There are indications that you will be able to have all kinds of real world crap marketed to you, as well as stuff to dress up the look of your avatar and to clutter up some personal space (free space? rented space? I dunno). But will you be able to make stuff in this world? They don’t really go into that, so I suspect not. What will you be able to do in this world, and will you be able to shape those activities to your own priorities (if those priorities are aren’t chatting someone up, blowing something up, shopping and fiddle-fucking around on Facebook)?

*shrugs* I dunno. They didn't say. But wait..they did say something about Facebook didn't they?

Ah yes..the role of Facebook in this. We'll return to that in a moment.

Meanwhile, back to the thing about jobs: there's going to be an "economy" and you can apply to be employed in this world. Doing what you ask? Well, boys and girls, I invite you to read the following from their web site:

“As a UNITED NATIONS CITIZEN you need to make customers happy through lively conversation and quality online service. Do people think you are fun to talk with over the net? Do you have a gift to gab, and do you know how to keep pace with an active clientele? This will quickly become the best place to try out your talents, while getting paid.

Bartenders & Waitresses:

The folks behind the bar and the girls that service the stars of the show "The Online Avatars." The brighter you chat, the better the experience and that is not different in the virtual world. We're not asking for fancy bottle juggling or an endless supply of jokes, but a friendly demeanor, active conversation and prompt service will go a long way. That said: People, tip our good bartenders & waitresses, through paypal!

Club Managers:

The folks that monitor the conversations, hire and fire and keep the environment special. As a Club Manager you are responsible for ideas to executive management and ensure that customer satisfaction is set at the highest possible level. As the Club Manager you make recommendations for day and night additions to the ambience of the bar. you are the team leader encourage a team spirit with the other employees. We also hope that you suggest charitable events and local sponsored fun events like games and activities to enhance the overall environment.

Shopping Centers and Malls Commissioned Sales Personnel

Malls are where "Avatars" congregate and wander through contemporary designed retail spaces. You can work at the store of your dreams from designer clothing stores to electronic and sports stores, we have it all and each location is geo-targeted to the Avatars shopping.
Sales Agent: Become an sales agent at one of the many sores; iTunes to Macy's To Footlocker To AT&T and more will provide commissioned sales person opportunities inclusive. Also, virtual clothing retailers, avatar fashion accessories stores, a toy store, iTunes, the NFL (and other leagues), Footlocker, an xTreme Sports retailers and more provide sales opportunities for professionals. Sales persons will interacting in real time with their customers through their AVATARS. Avatars will utilize current on-line websites to purchase goods, but in the near future, virtual merchandise can be picked up, tried on and checked out immediately. Retailers in the future, will provide (or pay to have executed) detailed 3D models of items of merchandise. Commissions range from 1% to 2.5% of the sales price depending on the store and your ability to sell. The more you sell the more you can make. Store Greeters & online assistants: As an "AVATAR Greeter" or "assistant" you will encourage other AVATARS to come into the store to browse and buy. When you purchase you receive .25% to 1% of sales. A great stepping stone to being a full commissioned sales agent. New Store Operators: For a fraction of the cost required to open a real world store, individual retailers will be able to open stores that service one-on-one opportunities with customers, creating an image that will enhance their brand with customers from around the world.

Media and News Reporters United Nations Citizen Daily News:
UNITED NATIONS CITIZENS employs reporters and publishes the “virtual news that’s fit to print.” An online news that gives targeted users the news they desire to read, listen to or view whether it is virtual news happening or local, national or world real-life news. Geo-coding and targeting will be supplied by our partner Equifax, and will allow real-time data mining from information provided by users and actual data overlays down to the zip code plus four level.

Pets, Adopting & Owning Volunteers:
A central area for adopting animals: So upon adopting a dream pet users have always wanted they become part of the UNITED NATIONS CITIZEN ANIMAL SANCTUARY. Users have the ability to alter and tweak their animal to their liking? Upon choosing the their animal, they have the ability to determine its size, coloring, its habit, intelligence level, and they can add a cool color or flair and or buy accessories for them.

By the way...I didn’t fuck around with that copy any. That’s the way it came off the website. Is it just me, or do you kind of have some lingering doubts about the capabilities of a commercial enterprise that required an investment of millions of dollars, but they couldn’t spare 50K for some copywriting and editing services? Does that make you wonder what kind of interns and other sallow quadrupeds they had working on the coding...and you wonder..”um..will my avatar have pants?” Prok and I were kind of kicking this around on Twitter. He expressed the opinion that

“By starting with sponsors & actual entry-level jobs to players, this world could win”

And I think he’s on to something there about the potential strengths of this concept. But when I responded about my lack of confidence born of their poor writing, grammar and typos in the text, he agreed and suggested that perhaps one of the jobs they should be hiring for, rather than waiters, should be “copywriter.”

I know...yeah yeah, I can’t produce a typo-free post to save my frakkin’ life. But hey, I’m just churning out this piffle for shits and giggles. This crappy blog ain’t part of a serious mega-marketing project that cost a blue billion pazoozahs to create.

So yeah, the web site for UNC not only didn’t answer the questions I wanted answered, it didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. To be honest...the quality and nature of the text and the site itself made me feel like this had been rushed. It feels like someone higher up the food chain said, "hey you guys, we got to get this turkey off the ground for this big retail convention thing! Make it SO!"

Now I may be wrong about the whole thing. Prok is probably on the mark with the thought that there is some serious potential here for this to be relatively successful with its entry level jobs and sponsors, and IF, as is likely, it is designed for a mass audience to readily comprehend, access and navigate in a manner that is not unlike losing yer footin’ on the proverbial log. And, oh yes, on top of everything else, UNC apparently will be set up so that while you are in this world, you will be able to access all your favorite social media bits and bobs as well. That should appeal to the masses, right?

But does it interest me? Shit... I don't know...probably not. Maybe for about 15 minutes just to see what it’s like. But mostly it sounds like a virtual hell on earth. I already have been a resident of a simple-to-master, structured, “no-you-can’t build-any-of-your-own-shit-here” virtual world when I did The Sims Online for a while (and even there we developed and introduced our own arts venues and activities into that game--things that the sapsuckers at EA never imagined as an aspect of the game). So, it is also possible that people will utilize this UNC virtual world as a place to exercise their own imaginations by just working around or within the limitations of the technology and the Babbitt-like thinking of the people who have made this brave new world.

If they do, I suspect what will happen is that the real value of this thing will be as an incubator to introduce a new broader audience to virtual worlds, get them used to the basic idea of living and working and playing in virtual space using avatars...and then they will feel the same hunger that carried us from TSO to Second Life. They will want to be able to do more, to make things, to interact with what they create...and this big shopping mall world will serve a springboard to propel them to something more challenging.

We’ll just have to see what it’s like when you can actually get into this thing. As Botgirl and others noted, right now, apparently all you can sign up for is to work there. And when you do, you’ll find that one of the requirements to get employment is having a Facebook account.

Hmmm. Interesting. And something that will turn a lot of people off.

So I wonder what is going on there with that nonsense?

But seriously...I know I'm being snotty. I haven't even had the chance to venture into this world, and already I'm giving off negative vibes. But to tell you the truth, I am really kind of looking forward to actually giving it a go and seeing what it's got under the hood, if only to satisfy my curiosity about all the questions that the promotional stuff didn't answer.

Hmmm...that is...unless...maybe I can't access this because I have a Mac? Again, I don't know...did anyone see anything about system requirements anywhere in any of the promotional material...or anything about when this would actually launch?


  1. Well I'm not into Facebook and don't want to go shopping - so if that is all it has to offer them I'm out before it starts. I need a V world to be a sandbox like SL is - I need to be able to build stuff, well I don't as I suck but I other to be able to so they can build cool things like Kahruvel or Steelhead or Deadwood or a gazelle skin. If it's just come, chat, buy, dance then I'm sorry UNC, but I'm busy doing one of a million things in SL I can't in your world.

    Of course, these are IFs and won't apply to vast numbers of people for many reasons, I'm just saying how it's likely to impact, or rather not impact, on me ;)

  2. Dio, I agree with you (up to and including the title - God, I bore ME when I shop). It sure sounds like a virtual world of nothing but shopping, which seems deadly dull. The inabilityi to hire someone to write or copy edit makes one wonder about how serious these people are. The claim that one can earn "good" wages seems at odds with the job descriptions (tips via Paypal? Uh-huh). While the idea that I can interact with a salesperson regarding, say, an iPod while in the comfort of my living room has some appeal, the whole avatar (or " 'avatar' " or " 'Avatar' " or "AVATAR" - can't they agree on how to write it?) plus virtual world seems like a hell of a lot of overhead for what I can accomplish by going to a company web site and calling their 800 number.

    And yet... are we all just old farts missing something about what younger people like to do? For example, I've noticed two related trends: young people often claim that spelling, grammar, and punctuation don't matter, that only what you "mean" matters; and the venerable Washington Post has fired a whole lot of editors and the quality of its writing and copy editing has gone downhill. Do we attach too much importance to the fact that this looks like amateur hour, because, to the target audience, the first-draft-quality press release is just A-OK? Is the whole concept really the 21st century equivalent of teens hanging out in the mall?

    God help us either way.

  3. hey headburro...yeah..I know..but like I say in the piece, trying to put a goddam happy smiley face on things, maybe the positive aspect of this is that it will get new users introduced into the world of VWs and then they will be hopped up for trying something that has more depth and is more of a challenge. I guess that's kind o the theory that the Labsters are working on with their hopes and dreams of making it easier to enter and start using SL (and have a nice pre-fab home already set up, to boot). It's just that they are hoping people will get started and make the jump to the more challenging aspects of SL, rather than jumping to another VW.

  4. Hey Rhia,

    Yeah I have heard that argument before, but I'm not entirely convinced. I think it's just an excuse for being lazy, because bad grammar, spelling, punctuation etc. in fact makes the communication of the meaning more problematic. It sure doesn't help any. And that's the thing with this web site. You have to re -read things a couple of times to get the idea about what they mean exactly.

    In a business context, that ain't good.
    My suspicion is that they may actually be using outsourced offshore copywriters, which would explain why the text reads like it is written by someone who is not a native speaker of English.

    This seems to be an increasingly common practice because it is, of course, cheap. And for many businesses these days, cheap is apparently more important than effective.

    And yes, when they say "good wages" I am not sure they're defining it the same way I would. Paypal micropayment tips or a 1% commission on sales seems rather slim.

  5. Nice writeup, I'm impressed you cut them so much slack. Their website is amateur at best; and did you watch the promotional video?! Holy cow, LOL. My first thought was: Far Cry without guns, then they brought in the guns! ROFL!

    I kept thinking to myself 'what about this hasn't already been done in SL 5 years ago, and failed?' I couldn't come up with anything. TBH I kinda like watching the corpies floundering around the metaverse, it seems the only thing they care about is making money, and quite frankly that bores me even more than the prospect of being dragged along on one of my girlfriend's weekend shopping trips.

    Can't wait to see how this turns out.

  6. Hey Matt!

    Yeah, I watched the videos and everything, mostly because I was hoping there might be more actual details hidden somewhere, but also because as painful as it was, sometimes even doing that sort of thing beats doing actual work.

    Actually the thing that surprised me was that they didn't show much in the way of avatars, particularly female ones. The videos showed a world that was largely empty--most of the storefronts seemed to have nothing in them, not even dummied up. They could have overcome that a little just by having some other people standing around. And why did the avatars they did show run everywhere they went? No walking anim worked out yet? Or is their vision of a world based on shopping so compelling to them that they figure you're just going to want to dash from one store display to the next?

    But no women? In a world that relies heavily on shopping? Qu'est-ce que Fuck quoi?!

    Is this just going to be some kind of hopeless sausage fest? Shit boys, if that's the case then you REALLY should be showin' off some shots of bimbo-tars with big hair, small skirts and gravity-defying upper decks.

    In all seriousness--like I said above--I really got the feeling that they rushed this, and they needed to be a bit more up front that the promotional material at this stage of things is just a teaser.

    That said, yes, you're right, I didn't come down perhaps as hard as I could have, because to be fair, this IS just a teaser. Who knows what the final experience is actually going to look like or feel like? I want to give these guys a chance to actually show me what they got.

    Mind you, of course I'm going to be hard to impress. After all, I've seen things these fuckers probably wouldn't believe...attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion...or was that O'Ryan?

    So yeah, if they do better than it looks like they are going to do, I will give them all the credit in the world. But if they do what their promotional material suggests they are going to do, yeah, I will hang the "feckless turd" sign around their necks and frogmarch them around the parade ground.

    But I bet you dollars to donuts this if this particular new VW does end up having anything redeeming going for it, it's going to be some aspect or element or activity that the "customers" introduce to it.

  7. I give major kudos to Dio and this post in my own on the topic: "Vaporworld"

  8. Thank you Lalo

    I went and looked at your post about it too, and I think you did a great job at getting at more of the background on this deal--the who's who that is pretty damn interesting. Well done and thanks for the link!

  9. Sharp an' funny post! And omg omg omg the pdf really *does* say "Become an sales agent at one of the many sores"! hahahahaha

    There is a chance that this world will succeed, but only if the people designing the world are a completely different set of people than those designing the website, and that seems pretty unlikely. I will go out on a limb and bet a donut that this whole thing will be forgotten six months from now (if it hasn't been already). I get an extra donut if they get a Cease and Desist order from Cisco or one of their other Big Name Partners, demanding that they stop name-dropping them. :)

  10. @Dale: Funny thing about that... The first comment I got on my blog about it was from the marketing head of the pet supply company who sponsors the TV program alleged to be one of the "partners" in UNC -- and it was pretty easy to read as disavowal.

    *sardonic chuckle*

  11. Hey Dale,

    Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Yeah, I can think of some of the jobs I did as a teenager as being analogous to working as a "sales agent at one of the many sores."

    And're not the first person to speculate that this particular barnyard avian may never flap its tiny wings and actually fly.

    But at the same time...I wish them well. I hope they get the help they need to get it airborne. I really think it is possible that the more examples there are of this type of "virtual worlds with training wheels," the more people will get used to the idea of utilizing them as an aspect of their daily lives.

    Places like this UNC concept could conceivably serve as stepping stones that would encourage a growing population of users to try a simple VW and then move on to explore other platforms that are more challenging to use, but which offer greater creative and functional potential.

    But still for many of us...we're not going to have much interest in being a sales agent at a sore. For that matter I wouldn't be real excited about about being one of the "girls that service the stars of the show."

    If I wanted to do that, it's just a short tp to Zindra.

  12. Hey Lalo,

    Yeah, I noticed that seemed to be very carefully worded in such a way that you can infer there might actually be some from of limited relationship, but that the dog food folks aren't exactly 100% on board.

    It felt not so much like a "clarification" as a disclaimer....that if this project doesn't get off the ground they'll be able to say "oh no we weren't really a part of that."

    I wonder too about the exact nature of Cisco's part in all this. The way that a lot of blogger interpreted this announcement was that this was a project being spearheaded by Cisco. However, if you do a search on "Cisco" and "United Nations Citizens," the results are rather iffy. If you look at their official press release you will see a quote from someone who is "World Wide Customer Solutions Manager of Marketing with Cisco Digital Media Creative Services." The quote however, doesn't really say much about the UNC project per se--it's just a little boilerplate promoting what Cisco Digital Media Creative Services can do for companies in the future. If you go to look up "Cisco Digital Media Creative Services" you will find the following pdf which is mostly about "digital signage":

    So...does that mean that Cisco isn't exactly in the leading role that everyone implies for this? Are they just a provider of some of the technology, in the same way that "Harris Digital" is identified as a technology provider for the project on another one of the back pages of the web site?

    I have no idea. My brain hurt after a few minutes of looking at the marketing sputum from Cisco and Harris. Maybe you can have better luck at figuring out what is actually going on there Lalo.

  13. Marketing sputum, exactly! :) I am adding this here weblog to my (sadly neglected) Google Reader list at once.

    Note that it's "an sales agent", to be precise...

    (And that line about "girls that service the stars of the show" is beyond surreal. I mean, wtf? I'm suspecting that between you and Lalo and me, we've now put more thought into that website than the owner has.)

    As for wanting them to succeed, I dunno. I mean, I can see a possible utility to 'training wheels' worlds for the less neophilic; but I'm concerned that anyone visiting a world put together by an organization this clueless and sloppy would just get a negative impression of virtual worlds in general, which would be a pity...

  14. The ripples spread -- found this blog through a link at SLU:

    Meanwhile... someone connected with UNC created a Twitter account:

    (Uncavatar must be AuntieAvatar's husband, y'think?)

    When I discovered that (at the UNC website, yesterday), I tweeted at them with links to this blog, Botgirl's, and mine. No reply -- surprised?

  15. Hey Dale,

    Yeah, I can see your point about it could be so bad that instead of being something that got people interested in doing more, it might just turn them into VW haters.

    But I hope not. But who knows? Maybe even if it does blow, it might whet someone's appetite to try other things. Cone on, work with me here Dale, I'm trying to be Little Mary freakin' Sunshine and find some kind of goddam silver lining in this pile of turkey turds.

    hey Lalo, "Uncle and Auntie Avatar."


    I took a look at the other blog you listed there--yeah I think we're all on the same page. Good job tying everything together, Lalo.

  16. All in a day's work, Dio ;)

    Seriously, I'd like to see SL get some heavy competition -- and some other worlds to visit, too, as long as they're worth sticking my virtual foot in the door. Meanwhile, I've created an OpenSim in my computer: the ultimate sandbox! And I'll prolly hook it up to OSGrid someday.

    Seems appropriate that we've ended up using your blog to trade notes. The current state of virtual worlds reminds me of the time period you embrace in your RP, just as civilization begins to "tame the Wild West". Seems to me, there was a Land Rush or two back then that came to no good end.

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