Emulating 'Laguna' now virtually possible

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So there I was strolling through the sun-kissed neighborhood of Laguna Beach, Calif., when I realized my legs were getting tired. And that's when I pulled out of thin air a floating skateboard without wheels that flew through the streets several feet off the ground.

No, I wasn't under the influence of hallucinogens. In fact, I wasn't even in Laguna Beach. I was ensconced in MTV Networks' Manhattan boardroom sampling "Virtual Laguna Beach," a 3-D online world simulating the environment depicted on MTV's hit reality series of the same name. My legs weren't actually tired, but my finger was a little sore from the keyboard helping me navigate my virtual self.

If the floating skateboard wasn't a dead giveaway, "VLB" doesn't adhere to parameters of reality like gravity. By the same token, a few minutes of "VLB" was all the convincing I needed that Viacom might be on the verge of defying the rules of the media business, not to mention Wall Street's gloomy forecast for the conglomerate.

Virtual online worlds are nothing new, of course, as fans of franchises including "The Sims" and Second Life can attest. But it is incredible that it has taken this long for a television property to attempt to extend its brand to this addictive realm, which has the potential to deepen the programming experience like no blog or broadband channel ever could.

"VLB" offers a computerized re-creation of the region MTV's young viewers have gotten to know well, from views of Pacific Coast Highway to the sandy beaches. A user adopts a graphic representation of his or her own identity known as an avatar that can be creatively constructed from choices including hairstyle and T-shirt. From there, your avatar can interact with other avatars and partake of all sorts of virtual activities together from shopping to watching video.

Stop, I know what you're thinking: Kissing is about all the physical contact allowed between avatars. And if you're expecting to re-enact the virtual fight scene from "The Matrix," you will be disappointed. Then again, this is MTV, so let's see how long before the standards slip in this virtuous virtual world.

It should come as no surprise that "Laguna" would emerge as a trailblazer in TV. The show has already been something of a trendsetter in the reality genre, shooting in a manner so eerily similar to the conventional hour drama that to the uninitiated "Laguna" seems not like a unscripted program about rich, pretty California kids but a spinoff of "The O.C."

"VLB" is actually just the first of three virtual projects Viacom is planning, with a music-themed MTV version planned as well as a gay-themed world based on the company's new Logo brand.

Granted, "VLB" is an ersatz version of the real thing; the 3-D graphics are about as photorealistic as a Japanese woodblock print. But though the visuals are crude even by the standards of video games, your inaugural "VLB" experience will be akin to something like your first time playing Pong on Atari. You intuit immediately that this is a format this will likely evolve in incredible ways.

I've never quite understood how something as low tech as MySpace -- in its current incarnation essentially just interconnected Web pages -- could truly be the Internet's killer app. Of course, there's always the possibility that News Corp.'s massive site simply opens a virtual wing, but perhaps MTVN may be getting a crucial head start with "VLB" in Social Networking 2.0.
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