A mysterious online countdown. USB drives containing cipher keys. Notes and videos from a woman who calls herself Loki. Bloggers' reports of extravagant gifts, marked with a return address for Microsoft's headquarters.
And all trails leading to a Web site for something called Vanishing Point.
After weeks of sifting through clues, bloggers, gamers and technology enthusiasts got some relief this week when Microsoft Corp. revealed that Vanishing Point is part of a viral-marketing campaign for Vista, the new PC operating system set for a consumer launch later this month.
Vanishing Point is "a large-scale online and off-line collaborative puzzle game," Microsoft said. Players register online for a sweepstakes — first prize is a ride to suborbital space, which Microsoft termed "the ultimate vista" — and then work together in forums and on collaborative Web sites called wikis to solve riddles from Loki, Microsoft's "Puzzle Master."
Particularly astute bloggers noticed references to the Bellagio Hotel fountains and Loki during a speech Microsoft chairman Bill Gates gave Sunday at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Microsoft said hundreds gathered at the fountains Monday night to watch the image of Loki, projected over the water, delivering a cryptic message filled with references to time, clocks and calendars — clues to puzzles posted on the Vanishing Point Web site.
Loki will make appearances in more than 10 cities between now and Vista's Jan. 30 consumer launch date, with stops scheduled in Miami, Phoenix, Berlin and Seattle. Any player who registers online can win, regardless of his or her contribution to the collaborative puzzle-solving taking place in the blogosphere.
Vanishing Point is aimed at Microsoft consumers who are already sold on Vista, according to Brian Marr, the group marketing manager for Vista, the first major Windows upgrade since Windows XP launched in 2001.
"They can probably tell me things about the product," he said. Rather than touting software features, Marr said, the campaign aims to reward the company's best customers.
Besides the ride in Rocketplane Ltd. Inc.'s four-seater spacecraft, prizes include computers, Xbox game consoles, Zune digital music players and, of course, copies of Windows Vista.
Marr declined to reveal Loki's true identity, but said a special prize awaits the person who figures it out: his or her name, laser-etched onto a batch of microprocessors from Advanced Micro Devices Inc.
"Especially for that audience, the most technically engaged, having their name in lights like that is a pretty special thing," Marr said. "Even if it is very tiny little lights, underneath the fan."