Ultrastar is a music fan site management company, started by David Bowie in the late 90's. They create and manage sites for a range of pop music acts - such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Sting, INXS and about 9 other acts. They emailed me today to tell me about out a new product for all their bands, a media player called the Virtual Ticket. Basically it's a rich media player that enables members of the fan sites to spread video clips to non-members. It's also kind of like a lite social network system, in that it features chat and commenting throughout.
Virtual Ticket is being marketed as an "on-line tour companion" for bands/artists, because it gives extra media content and regular updates (e.g. band member video diaries or behind the scenes action) to people who buy their concert tickets. The aim is to create more of a relationship between the artist and their fans.
The Who Virtual Ticket
A good example of Virtual Ticket in action is at The Who's latest tour website, where it has been labeled Squeezebox. It features videos of The Who playing, behind the scenes videos, setlists for each show, photosets, documentary videos, news stories, interviews... and much more. There is also a chatroom and the whole site is basically a social network system for Who fans. While all of this kind of content has been available before on music band websites, the system behind it (Virtual Ticket) is a turnkey solution for bands to provide all these features to fans.
Accessibility & Usability
I did have some difficulty loading the site and logging in. I also sent it to a friend of mine in Auckland, who is one of The Who's biggest fans, and he too had trouble loading the site. My friend, Dave, is exactly the kind of person The Who wants using this site - so it's crucial Ultrastar ensures accessibility is sorted out. [Incidentally Dave wanted me to note that a it was lifetime dream of his to see The Who play in Sydney 2 years ago - similar to me seeing Lou Reed play live recently... but I digress].
Also I found there were some usability issues - e.g. when a video clip I watched finished, there didn't seem to be any way to get back to the home screen. I ended up closing the window and re-opening. Also some icons were not obvious, so I found myself clicking them just to find out what they did. I'm sure these issues are being addressed.
How Virtual Ticket was developed
According to the developers, the Virtual Ticket Media Player client was authored in ActionScript 2 and Adobe Flash 8. Here are their goals for the site:
"Among the main goals for the Virtual Ticket Media Player to achieve was the ability to store and display highly relational content and data, of varying media types, in a straight-forward, user-friendly manner. Most importantly, the varying content types had to be viewable simultaneously. That is, a user could be simultaneously watching a video, reading a news story, looking at photos, and conversing with other users in the chat room.
The navigation concept allows for this to happen, as it can display content in a linear fashion (User goes to the News section, chooses a news story, and is presented with the full story) as well as non-linear fashion (User views a tour date entry and is presented with videos, photo sets, reviews found elsewhere within the Virtual Ticket Media Player, but are grouped with the specific tour date entry because of a relational qualification). This requires that deep linking and runtime display is possible from any given view to any other piece of content within the application."
The video is streaming Flash and the reason given for this is "because of UltraStar's obligations to protect their client/artists' rights". By which they mean there is no caching and "therefore no footprint of any kind left on the user's computer." For the video techies out there, the video files are encoded with the high-quality On2 VP6 codec and are hosted on a distributed network (CDN) by NineSystems.
The chatroom software is designed to be relatively open:
"The Virtual Ticket Media Player Chat Room is written and operated under Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) standards. This means that other users will be able to use their existing messaging software (Trillian, GTalk, etc...) to connect, authenticate, and log in to the Artist's chatroom. Currently, the built-in Virtual Ticket Media Player chat interface is the only public way to enter the Artist's chatroom though support for other clients is planned."
Perhaps the defining feature in Virtual Ticket is that "every piece of content" in UltraStar’s Virtual Ticket Media Player has a viral marketing component. An example given was the “Send-To-Friend” capability, which allows users to send a personalized message and a link to any content entry (video, photos, etc) to a friend.
Also the Media Player aims to encourage dialogue and user-participation, with commenting and integrated chat built in. Users can leave comments on "any and all content found in the Media Player."
Currently The Who Squeezebox is the only live example of Virtual Ticket, but coming soon is a Rolling Stones Virtual Ticket. Both these examples use the same Virtual Ticket Media Player file, but have a different color scheme and content database.
As a big music fan, I love seeing this kind of web technology applied to music websites. I think once Ultrastar has addressed the technical and usability issues (and remember this is still a young product), they will find a ready and willing audience for their Virtual Tickets!