Quokka Kicks

Can Virtual Adventure Thrive on the Internet? A Brazen New Web Site Says Yes. But Is This Digital Expedition into the Unknown a Revolutionary Way to Experience Sports, or a Business Disaster in the Making?

Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
Like most Internet ventures, Quokka is taking a leap of faith. The first article of its belief system is in "immersion," the site's promise to make a user feel as if he is actually adventuring. To that end, Quokka provides a mind-boggling amount of information, like "biometrics" (heart rates and O2 levels), e-mails, videos, audio transmissions, and photos—all filed by the athlete. For those who loved the Great Trango production, a primary immersive attraction was how the main characters in the drama told their story. Lowe in particular wrote thousands of words in his updates and in lengthy replies to e-mails from around the world, making himself accessible to his admirers and presenting a vivid portrait of the climb. Most climbers, however, are not as articulate as Lowe was.

Terkelsen maintains that he's not concerned about the wild fluctuations in the quality of competitors' self-chronicles. "They're themselves," he says. "This is a voyeuristic medium. You're going to discover that this guy's crafty, that guy's good, this guy's bad, or you like him, you dislike him—whatever. We're going to be as authentic about the experience as possible." Terkelsen himself combines good Quokka DNA and authenticity: He's a former investment banker who ditched that career and cofounded the Eco-Challenge adventure race in 1993 before joining Quokka in June 1998.

The problem is, with no controlling narrator to guide the viewer, Quokka events often feel fragmented and disjointed, like being forced to watch your next-door neighbor's slide show about his recent trek in Nepal—and you're the one manning the projector. And that's if your computer has a fast enough modem to navigate the site without crashing. "They created this whole illusion around this immersive experience that is largely hype," says an executive at another Internet sports company, who asked not to be identified. "It doesn't provide what we call a great user experience." In July, a reporter from the Boston Herald tried out the site and wrote that it was "loaded with bells and whistles that should have been rethought" and was "selling sizzle, not steak."

"HTML just doesn't convey the fullness of an experience the way a video or a great picture spread can," says Geoff Reiss, vice president of production and programming at ESPN Internet Ventures. "Right now, this medium is still relatively crude compared to where it's going to be in the near future."

Nonetheless, people seem to be biting: Quokka.com claims to have had 366,000 unique visitors in June, and each stayed a respectable 16 minutes. An appreciable number like what they're getting: "Chris H" was one of about 2,000 Great Trango viewers who e-mailed the climbers at the summit. "Congratulations Alex, Mark and Jared for cranking off the biggest rock climb in the world," he wrote, adding, "Quokka, you've truly set a new standard for how things will be done in the next millennium."

Unlike MountainZone, Quokka has not had to deal with the strange form of success that accompanies the coverage of expeditions that result in disaster and death. Of course, the pressure and responsibility that a wired event puts on an athlete to succeed is not a brand-new phenomenon. "I know that every time I've climbed and there've been cameras around, I've made decisions that I wouldn't have made otherwise," says Marc Twight, a former climbing partner of Lowe's. "If I'm by myself, where failure doesn't matter, I don't make those decisions. It's a kind of low-level pressure that's hard to deal with." And one that may yet push adventure athletes to rebel against wired expeditions.

Whatever the case, for Quokka's sake the future had better arrive sooner rather than later. Even network television is jumping into the virtual-expedition realm; CBS recently announced a forthcoming show called Survivor, in which 16 volunteers will be marooned on a desert island off Borneo and filmed as they cope with danger, privation, and one another. In the meantime, "many of the sports Quokka broadcasts are less than mainstream," says Gail Bronson, senior analyst for IPO Monitor, an Internet news service based in Palo Alto, California. Quokka's fate, she says, "could be a question of delivering large enough audiences to support the sense of a big momentum play to propel the stock higher." Sports on the Internet "will do extremely well," she predicts, once broad-band access—a huge leap forward in the amount of information the Internet can provide—becomes widely available. As it is, she concludes, Quokka "may be slightly ahead of its time."

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