It’s a quiet day over here. The ground outside my window is caked in snow. The driveway is icy, the car waiting to be freed. Short of the UPS guy or maybe the neighbor walking his twin dachshunds, the chances of chatting up someone about last night’s episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm seem slim.
But as always, there’s plenty happening over There. The dune buggy racers are kicking up dirt on their way to the track. The hoverboarders are flying. A surfer dude flirts with a raver in a halter top and neon green micro shorts. And Lexxa, someone who has greeted me within seconds of my materialization, is offering to show me the way to the spa. “You look like you could use a makeover,” she says.
I don’t take it personally. She’s referring to my avatar-the character I’ve chosen to represent me on-screen. I’m in There, the most ambitious virtual world yet. Created by a coterie of programmers, Silicon Valley moguls, and Hollywood animators, who have raised about $37 million (and endured at least one round of layoffs), There is a big gamble on one little idea: that the future of online communication looks like a video game. But it’s not a game. People don’t come here to battle dragons or ogle Lara Croft. They come to hang out. They come to socialize. And they come for the hot tubs.
Over the years, the quest to build a compelling virtual world has been a case study in vaporware. Lame graphics, clunky design, and ghost-town populations have all but shattered the dream of a real-life Metaverse. But times have changed, insist the creators of There and Second Life, a competing virtual world launched last summer. They contend that technology, business, and culture have finally caught up with expectations. Instant messaging and e-mail are middle-American mainstays. Broadband use is on the rise. Computer processors are fast and cheap. “We made some bets years ago,” says Will Harvey, the Stanford University engineer who in 1998 founded Menlo Park, CA-based There. And now, he says, “we’re fortunate that those bets turned out to be true.”
For people like Harvey, this is more than just another fad; it is a whole new style of online personal interaction that could become as commonplace as e-mail. “When we imagine 10 years out,” he says, “the time people will be spending on the Internet will be inside a rich visual medium. There’s going to be some underlying platform that’s making that possible. We think we’re making it.” Then again, if you had just wagered millions of dollars, you’d put on an optimistic face too.
Over at the spa, Lexxa helps me reconfigure my avatar. A few clicks bring me to a full menu of options for modifying my appearance. I lengthen my nose and broaden my chin. With another click, I ditch my default khakis for a pair of Levi’s. When I ask Lexxa what she likes so much about being here in There, the text of her answer fills the word balloon over her head without hesitation. “It’s the people,” she says.