It's more than a little ironic that Ananova (the virtual newscaster who gets fan mail from real male admirers) recently reported that an Australian has patented a flexible mannequin whose built-in motors and, um, parts allow people to have sex over the Internet. Considering we can already smell and taste through our computers (think DigiScents and TriSenx), hasn't the intimacy between man and machine gotten a little out of hand?
Many consumers think so. Reality TV (Survivor, Big Brother, et al.) struck a chord with the masses, and anti-virtual sentiment now extends far beyond the networks. Ordinary people are logging off their computers and doing extraordinary things-re-enacting famous battles, hiding out on the streets of New York City, venturing into the wilderness. Entrepreneurs should take note: Reality-based entertainment and adventure is finding a sizable market niche.
"A lot of people are looking for adventure away from their computers," says Jeremy Irish, 28, founder of Bellevue, Washington-based Grounded Inc. and site manager of Geocaching.com. "We get the computer geeks out there hiking. I'm one of them. I once spent 17 hours straight in a multi-user dungeon. Geocaching is similar, except it's real."
One of the forerunners blending virtual and reality, Geocaching sends players in search of hidden "caches," which the company tracks using GPS (Global Positioning System) devices and records the exact coordinates of on its Web site. "People are heading out to places they'd never normally go," says Irish.
Geocachers each take one item from the cache-typically Tupperware containers filled with random goodies, such as maps, toys or tools-then replace it with something of their own. They can also write entries into a logbook that stays with the cache.
"We get some interesting people: outdoorsmen, computer geeks, guntoting libertarians, families with kids," says Irish. "I like the idea of fostering a community of people who wouldn't normally interact with each other."
Irish started Geocaching as a hobby in July 2000, thinking the game had a limited audience. But the site had more than 4,500 registered members at press time, not including the thousands of unregistered ones who get coordinates from the site every day.
"Adventure games are going to become more pervasive in our society," contends Irish. "The Internet's gotten a little too big, and people are looking for real experiences." The response to Geocaching has Irish pondering the entrepreneurial possibilities. "It's a hobby and a game right now," he says. "But I'm trying to put these ideas into a real business plan. That's where I want to take it."
While most geocaching occurs in the countryside, similar adventure games are being played in major cities. Hide/Seek/NYC involved three "fugitives" trying to escape capture on New York City streets for 11 days starting November 29, 2000. Fugitives and hunters were awarded cash prizes for their efforts, while a worldwide audience followed the event via updates on the company's Web site.
"With the popularity of reality television, reality games will continue to succeed," says Mike Basta, executive producer of Hide/Seek/NYC for SiteSherpa, the Web navigation company that staged the event. "On Survivor or Big Brother, viewers enjoy the show vicariously. Here they get to be part of it."
Like Geocaching, being "part of" Hide/Seek/NYC involved the Internet. "The combination of the Internet and reality was the key," says Basta. "Viewers who were unable to hit the streets to catch the fugitives were addicted to following the proceedings online." A second Hide/Seek is planned for summer 2001.
Many of these games rely on information from the Internet to play the real-life game. One example of this fusion is Majestic, the suspense-thriller game where players get information from real sources to uncover fictitious conspiracies. Players use a variety of communication devices (instant messaging, fax, e-mail) to uncover clues and share ideas with other players. "We put players at the center of their own suspense thriller," says Neil Young, 31, the game's co-creator. "We fuse fiction with reality. The story doesn't just live in TV or the computer. It connects with [consumers]."
Young believes reality-based entertainment will have a longer shelf life than virtual sensory experience. "I can't imagine a broad audience being comfortable sniffing their computer," he says. "Entertainment that blurs the lines between fiction and a real experience is more compelling." Consumers will ultimately decide if the "reality trend" is sustainable. But one thing appears certain: Our innate need for real experiences will outlast the fads of virtual smell, taste and touch. Entrepreneurs who recognize this won't just come up smelling like (virtual) roses; they'll have a real business to grow for years to come.