Update, 8/3: Video from Vega's appearance here.
Back in the early 90s, an engineer named Karl Brandenburg was wracking his brain for a way to compress music files without losing their quality, when an insistent, dulcet a capella voice came drifting toward him up the hallway of the German Aerospace Center. It was rich and soft but imperfect in a way that made the singer unique, and it gave Brandenburg an instant intuition: if he could digitize it while still retaining the artist's soul, so to speak, he would have his ideal file format. The song was "Tom's Diner", the singer was Suzanne Vega, and it's why the New York musician is sometimes referred to as "the mother of MP3", the file format that made the flowering of music culture across the Internet possible.
So it seems fitting that Suzanne Vega will become the first established musician to have her entire persona uploaded onto the Internet, too. News of her performing a live concert in Second Life has already reached the SL blogosphere (as here), but when I read that news, I wanted to meet Vega's avatar for myself-- and see, so to speak, how well they'd captured her soul.
Vega's avatar is part of a larger project sponsored by "The Infinite Mind", a public radio program hosted by Emmy award-winning journalist John Hockenberry; the producers hired the metaverse development team Inivite Vision Media to create a permanent presence in Second Life, including a studio for shows recorded from within Second Life, and a concert stage, where Suzanne Vega will perform live on August 3.
"[I]t seemed obvious to us that if celebrities were performing in-world they would have their own shapes," Infinite Mind executive producer Quirky McArdle tells me. "Suzanne was really intrigued from the start. She is a person who's appeared on our program maybe eight times or so over the past nine years, and we have a warm relationship. We asked her to talk about creativity and imagined worlds, something she's addressed previously on our program."
"It's a complete avatar, skin, hair, eyes, clothes," Suzanne Vega tells me. (Though at the moment, Vega's avatar is being puppeteered by an Infinite Vision staffer.) I have to say, it's an entirely credible physical resemblance, though as of yet, they've not incorporated the custom animations which will accompany her performance.
"So how will the live show with Suzanne actually go down?" I ask Quirky, skeptical. "Will she control her avatar?"
"Yes, she will, as much as one can while simultaneously playing and singing! But she will inhabit it. She's very excited about that." I ask her if Vega's had an orientation with the complex user interface, and that question comes from personal experience, knowing how difficult it was to manuever a Pentagon advisor and a Stanford professor through the metaverse. "We still have a couple of weeks," Quirky tells me gamely, "and have already discussed that with her and the other guests."
Suzanne Vega's avatar is the work of famed in-world designer Munchflower Zaius, now busy completing the identities of two more Infinite Mind guests who'll appear in Second Life: Internet guru Howard Rheingold, and legendary author Kurt Vonnegut. "How cool is it that the author who first speculated about the relationship between man and technology is coming here in avatar form for a chat and reading?" Quirky enthuses.
I peer at Suzanne Vega, and notice something else about her.
"This seems to be Suzanne at her current age-- early 40s, I imagine?"
"Yes," Quirky McArdle tells me, "it was intended to reflect her current age. She wanted to look like herself." And since most residents create female avatars that appear to be in their early to mid-20s, a persona who looks her age is something of an innovation in itself.
For that matter, it suddenly occurs to me, Infinite Mind host John Hockenberry is a parapalegic confined to a wheelchair. So I ask Quirky if he'll take this reality with him into Second Life.
"Offered a choice between a wheelchair and walking on avatar legs," she tells me, "[John] selected a hovercraft as his preferred mode of transportation.
"'In a fantasy world', he said, 'why not?'"