He left retirement and created a virtual Laguna Beach
When MTV and its popular reality show came calling, Michael Wilson’s Makena Technologies had the answer.
By TAMARA CHUANG
The Orange County Register
The first time Michael K. Wilson came out of retirement, it was to help his old friend Pierre Omidyar on a little startup called eBay. Wilson was its fourth employee. He retired again in 2001.
The second time Wilson left retirement, he bought the rights to There.com, a virtual world where people become cartoon avatars and socialize online. As a founding investor, he believed in the social-networking aspect and took over as the company changed focus to government applications.
The Laguna Beach resident, who turns 50 this year, has no plans to retire again soon. His company, Makena Technologies, operates There.com and produced a virtual Laguna Beach for the MTV Networks series “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County,” where the typical resident is young and female. The job keeps him young and he spends hours a day inside the worlds.
“Everybody in there looks better than they do in real life,” Wilson said.
Virtual worlds have existed for decades in science-fiction novels, such as 1982’s “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson, a book that inspired Wilson. These online communities were relegated to sci-fi lovers but paved the way for the popular online game World of Warcraft, population 8 million, and social networking sites like Second Life, which has 3.7 million residents. There.com now has about 750,000 members. Virtual Laguna Beach has around 360,000 registered users.
But it has only been the past year that virtual worlds have attracted a wider audience. New York Law School holds classes inside There.com. The Sundance Film Festival held its first virtual screening inside Second Life in January. Episodes of MTV’s “The Hills” and “The Real Orange County” are screened inside the virtual Laguna Beach a day before airing on TV.
“I credit the guys at MTV for this. Before we did Laguna Beach, if I went to any member in There and asked what kind of computer they had, they’d tell me about the BIOS. But in Laguna Beach, we’ve turned this from a techie site to something all people use,” Wilson said.
How the dream began
The Norfolk, Va., native was a smart kid. He took college classes in high school, got good grades. But maybe he was too smart for school. He got a job in Macy’s technical department instead of going to college. And because he knew more about technology than others, he moved far and fast through the tech world, working at Chevron, Oracle and The Well. In the mid-1990s, he was hired as an engineer at eShop, a software company.
That’s where Wilson met Omidyar, who would later ask twice to join him at eBay. Wilson relented in January 1997 and helped build the company’s technology. He retired four years later as eBay’s senior vice president of product development and site operations and moved to Laguna Beach.
In 2005, There.com’s board began talking about shutting down the unprofitable consumer portion to focus on military use. Wilson, an investor since the beginning, wanted to make sure the consumer world lived on. He started Makena, named after a beach in Hawaii, and bought the exclusive license to There.com.
Then, last February, MTV Networks came knocking. They were interested in creating a virtual world of their own. In April, MTV placed its order.
“MTV said we want to build an entire world, and we want to build it by August,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s team of developers, artists and designers worked overtime to get the world running by opening week. They designed clothing and characters to look more “California” than There.com’s world. They added details, like the movie theater on the main drag and the lighthouse on the beach. They added video inside the virtual world to screen episodes a day before the TV broadcast. It was a lot of work, but employees didn’t mind too much, said Stefan Dorsett, a software engineer.
Wilson handed out weekly bonuses and hired a masseuse to help the staff relax. But, mostly, Wilson made it exciting to work there.
“He’s like a mentor. We learn so much through him,” said Dorsett, 25. “He’s interested in the same stuff we are.”
Makena delivered the Virtual Laguna Beach in four months, just in time for the new season.
“We think Mike is a visionary, no question about it.” said Jeff Yapp, executive vice president of program development for MTV Networks.
Yapp said MTV Networks is pleased with the results and hopes to continue adding more virtual neighborhoods. Makena supplies the technical and social support by hiring people to organize events in the virtual worlds.
“The target audience we’re going after are viewers of the show. They don’t spend a lot of time in virtual games or Second Life. Now the goal is to get them to want to stay. That’s where Mike’s team does such a great job,” Yapp said. “Once it becomes a community, it begins to develop on its own. There are 1,200 social clubs in Laguna Beach.”
Wilson spends hours each day in the virtual worlds, and if you want an update, he’s easy to reach. Just ask his avatar, listed as “Michael” or “Michael Wilson.”
“Yes, sure, if they run into me in the world, I am happy to talk to them,” he said.