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iBloks: The Media Is The Message

Digital entertainment startup iBloks has a message for "techthusiasts" who are dying to play with fancy graphics in Windows Vista: Come on down.

The startup opened its doors this week, offering consumers the ability to play with Vista's WinFX presentation layer technology on their XP machines.

Think of it as a scrapbook on steroids. The iBloks application lets you create and save three-dimensional multimedia "mods" that combine photos, video and music. Instead of simply making a decorative frame for photos, for example, or making a static slideshow, you can paste them into an interactive 3D multimedia show.

"We saw a need in the market to unleash the content people have on laptops and desktops, and create a way for them to use rich media and share stories about their lives and what's important to them in real time," said iBloks CEO Julia Miller.

The software launched with two pre-built mods: a dancing man and a sudoku puzzle game.

The man is composed of nine flat, rectangular planes that look like postcards (the blocks). You can drag media elements onto each of the planes, where they play independently. For example, a video might be playing on the rectangle that's his head, while the two rectangles making up his body each showed a different photo. When you add music, the man dances along.

The soduku game lets each player select a photo or video to appear on the squares he covers, while a music track plays along.

In addition to mixing visual media, iBloks offers Mix Master, an online audio processor that lets you alter the music track by speeding it up or slowing it down while adding special effects.

Users can share their mods via e-mail and IM and they also can publish them to MySpace, a blog or a Web site; but others also need to download the free iBloks software to view the mod.

One thorny issue could be digital rights. Users can include CRM-protected music in a mod, but they can also, for example, include an MP3 ripped from a purchased CD. Miller admits that it's still to be determined whether publishing such a mod on a public blog violates the copyright in that scenario, but she hopes to minimize the risk by forging partnerships with music labels.

The company plans to make money by selling additional mods directly to consumers and by licensing the software to brand advertisers and content creators. For example, a company could create a mod composed of its own digital assets and invite consumers to download it and pass it around. There's already an upgrade to the Mix Master app, and Miller said the site already has generated some paid downloads.

"For content owners, gives them the opportunity to have very cool interactive and fun way to share their media in very flexible way," Miller said. Rodale Publishing already has licensed the tools.

Jonathan Fram, managing partner in the venture firm Maveron, announced his company had participated in a new funding round that brought iBloks $3 million.

(The company's angel round came from media luminaries including Michael Ostin, a former Warner Music and Dreamworks executive; Freddy DeMann, founding partner in Maverick Recording Company, Madonna's label; and Maurice Marciano, fashion designer, and founder of GUESS?; Nile Rogers, Grammy award-winning record producer and producer of the Halo 2 soundtrack, is an advisory board member.)

Fram believes there's a strong market for digital content and for the tools to help people enjoy it.

"We define ourselves by our media now," he said.

Miller is a former Xbox executive, and she worked closely with Microsoft on the product. Because the current product works on Windows XP, Miller saw an upside to the Vista delay.

"We'll build custom mods and premium positioning products for Vista, as well," she said. "It's a way to keep our model fresh and current while taking into account that we need a product in the market today. We have one foot planted in today and one in the future."

IBloks is the first public application to demonstrate the capabilities of Windows Vista, now expected in 2007. The software is featured on Microsoft's site, and iBloks will launch commercially when Vista does.

Windows Vista Presentation Foundation (formerly code-named Avalon) is planned as a key component of the new operating system, enabling, among other things, 3D graphics and the appearance of translucence. Microsoft  decided to also offer WinFX as an add-on for Windows XP. This is the release that iBloks uses for this beta version. (WinFX also is included in Microsoft's recent release of the 2.0 beta version of Vista.)

"We're one of their top featured consumer applications for WinFX and that's a great place for a startup company to be," Miller said.

It's good for Microsoft, as well. Redmond will have to persuade customers that the new OS is worth upgrading for.

Miller promotes both iBloks and Vista when she says it "begins to show the potential of what Windows Presentation Foundation can do and what great software can do for a much more intuitive consumer interactive experience."