There, sitting on an island in a virtual reality world, a replica of the Philharmonic Hall was waiting to receive its first visitors. Although they were made of pixels and not skin and bones, they were soon able to watch a concert by the house orchestra, which was streamed from real life into the fake 3D world.
It is the year 2007, the place Liverpool’s Hope Street. Not the one we all walk along and admire the listed buildings and cathedrals at each end, but the Hope Street of a parallel universe.
The experiment was one of the first of its kind and was covered by the world’s media.
Back then, it was impossible to believe that we would ask an inanimate object in our kitchens to turn on the light, receive traffic news or play a favorite song. We never thought that the future would bring a summer where we would work from home, meet with colleagues over video calls and order food at a local restaurant using an app on our phones.
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If this seems confusing now, imagine what it was like in the days before Elon Musk was a household name, when the very first iPhone had only come on the market two months earlier, when the Internet was still called “new media”.
You could design your avatar the way you wanted and live pretty much the way you wanted. Unfortunately, not everyone chose to be good.
The island of the Philharmonic was located in a virtual cult reality world called Second Life. At that time it had almost 9 million inhabitants who lived there as avatars and bought virtual clothes with virtual cash called Linden dollars, which they exchanged for real money.
The Philharmonic’s advance into Second Life was much more well-mannered – and came about almost by accident.
At some point, police in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands are said to have investigated whether users committed a crime when their avatars sexually attacked or stalked another. There was even terrorism, with dummy bombs being detonated in a business district, covering the area with white smoke.
Millicent Jones, Executive Director of Audience and Development, had already read an article about the virtual world when she was approached by a Scottish company that wanted to build a replica concert hall in it as an experimental project for an additional fee. Even with the discount, the project cost around £16,000. At that time, the islands on which it was possible to build cost 1,675 euros, plus a monthly maintenance fee of 295 euros.
Millicent says: “It was an interesting experiment. There were a thousand people who wanted to be in Second Life, and we only had about 100 tickets because of network speed limitations.
“They all really wanted to dress up, which made me think that there must not be many places in Second Life where you can really dress up like that.
Even considering the technical limitations of the time, the hall looked remarkably realistic, with many of its Art Deco features included in the replica, and the much less convincing avatar of chief conductor Vasily Petrenko greeting visitors in the grand foyer.
“People could not really put themselves in the hall if they were not already immersed in such an environment. One of the national reviewers came to Liverpool, not to review the concert, but to review it in Second Life, which defeated the object”.
While real people were sitting in their seats, the Second Life avatars also took their places and waited for a live stream of a concert by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring music by Huyton-born composer John McCabe and Liverpool-born Kenneth Hesketh, then Phil’s composer in the house.
Those who were not lucky enough to win tickets for the live concert could watch the daily reruns in the virtual concert hall.