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Wednesday, March 28, 2007
'Splume' -- Japan gets its own world of avatars
Judging by Newton's Third Law of Motion the great English scientist really must have gazed into a crystal ball and seen the Japan of today. His famous law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every anonymous concrete apartment block and crisp white shirt locked in a navy blue suit in Japan, there is its creative opposite -- the burgeoning ranks of anime, manga and the like.
Japan's Splume Corp. is doing its bit for the reaction against the forces of drabness with its own online opus, "Splume," which was announced at a recent press conference. Touted as a "platform" rather than a game, "Splume" is a 3D environment where users around Japan can interact and communicate. The program is currently available for download in Beta form, with a full release penciled in for this summer.
Initially devised in 2000, "Splume" is envisioned by its creators as a virtual world where users can chat, explore and create at their leisure.
"The idea is that once one goes into the virtual world, one clicks on another object and is led to another site," said Kajitsuka Chiharu, president of Splume Corporation. "What we are trying to do is to create something where everything online is interconnected as opposed to having separate links. We wanted to create something that was open-ended, where anyone, anywhere, could participate in the program."
On installing the downloaded software, users choose an avatar to represent them, which can be edited and customized to suit their own style. "We're thinking of using WebMoney for this," said Akihito Miyamoto, the Splume platform division art director. "You'll be able to buy credits online and then spend them on items in the virtual store."
Once you've decked out your character and set a personal profile, you can wander the 3D environment, using portals to teleport to different locations. Currently the Beta version includes two fleshed-out landscapes: Future Town and Rock Town. Wandering around these very different spaces is slow but simple, with the keyboard's arrow keys controlling your avatar and mouse-clicks interacting with scenery and other avatars.
The software does seem to be in its infancy even now. It currently suffers from appalling collision-detection that has your avatar sticking to walls and steps, and a none-too-savvy camera that often gets lost behind the scenery. But there should be time to iron these things out before it is publicly released, and anyway, with an open-ended online platform, there is always time for tweaking later.
Indeed, "Splume" will thrive or fall on its ability to attract user-generated content, and its creators hope to entice both businesses and consumers to create and upload 3D versions of real-life shops, restaurant, clubs and so on.
"We want to use photos of a business and merge that with the virtual world to create something that is appealing to both the businesses and the users," says Tsutsumi Tatsuo from the R&D unit at Recruit Co, which is working to bring businesses on board. "It would work best if both the users and the corporations are capable of working together. We haven't really worked out the logistics but this is something that we are looking forward to doing."
However, the legal ramifications of this seem to have not yet been broached. Japanese businesses can be especially picky about how their image is used, and the potential for lawsuits triggered by users uploading without permission is dizzying. One need only look at the case of Japan's music copyright administrator, JASRAC, demanding that YouTube remove some 30,000 copyrighted clips last October to see that online hijacking of intellectual property will be frowned upon by the business community, no matter how well-intentioned the user.
Still, the examples that Splume Corporation has already assembled are quite impressive. With a click, we are transported to a rendition of a real-life restaurant, modeled in warped but effective 3D from photographs pieced together. The avatar isn't quite integrated properly, appearing to float as it moves in and out of the scenery, but the potential is obvious.
"The avatar can go in and explore the restaurant on his or her own," said Tsutsumi. "So they can learn what kind of food the restaurant serves, how big it is, what sort of experience one could have."
Other samples include Alohazaka, a Hawaiian resort complete with hula dancers on a stage; an onsen and ryokan, where sakura drift gently through the air; and a photorealistic rendering of the Tokyo Design Center, where the presentation took place.
"Splume" has so far been tested with around 1,000 avatars connected at once. However, this produced noticeable lag, says Miyamoto, as players' computers struggled to keep up with the on-screen data (although the server itself was unaffected). The company is keen to keep the game running smoothly on average PCs, not just high-end monsters, and in fact it does run nicely with its current low population.
An online world like this is already familiar in the West, of course. The hugely popular "Second Life" now boasts almost 5 million "residents," with 19,000 online at the time of writing. The game offers customizable avatars along with virtual real-estate, in which users can, for example, build a shop to sell digital products for use both in the game and the real world. Some players have reportedly made real-world fortunes from "Second Life," a highly complex environment that attracts tech-heads keen to share their creations as well as appearances from the likes of Suzanne Vega, who played a virtual gig there last August. Both programs are free to play.
"It has taken us seven years to make 'Splume' and along the way we compared our program to 'Second Life,' " Kajitsuka said. "We really do think that 'Second Life' is made well, but 'Splume' is something separate. We're trying to create a world where everything is interconnected. We want to make it so that the users have to do as little as possible in order to create the world that they want."
While "Second Life" has the advantage of a head-start, "Splume" is currently targeted only at the Japanese market. As we have seen with the social networking site (SNS) sector, which in terms of social interaction is loosely related, language and culture play a major role. So until Western SNS giant MySpace opened its Japanese-language service in November, Japan's Mixi was able to enjoy a local dominance that it will doubtless continue to enjoy for a good while. And while MySpace often descends into aggressive self-promotion, Mixi tends to encourage a more relaxed expression of personality.
"Splume" is targeted at the Japanese not only through language, but also in its softer visual tone, its less commercial sandbox mentality and the avatars' mannerisms, allowing users to bow gracefully when they meet a stranger and so on. It is overall a gentler experience than "Second Life," which is likely to stand it in good stead when it launches officially.
Make up your own mind -- head over to www.splume.com to install the Beta version.
Eri Nosaka assisted with this story.