Customer Is Virtual … Money Is Real

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There Inc. invites you to sell your wares in the most realistic and commercially sophisticated virtual world ever created. Now for the hard part: Getting people to show up.

Most of the time, when Tom Melcher looks at the desktop wallpaper image on his Dell (DELL) Inspiron 8200 notebook computer, he sees just what’s there: a screen-size photo of two dark-haired, smiling little girls, his 7- and 8-year-old daughters. Sometimes, though, he catches sight of another image. It’s a glimpse of a not-so-far-off future, on a day when his girls, both away at college, are settling in for their weekly long-distance check-in with Dad. Unlike the “Sunday phone call from hell” that Melcher remembers from his own college years, however, this one takes place through a screen like the one he’s looking at now, in a shared virtual space the whole family connects to from their computers. He sees his daughters onscreen, each represented as a walking, talking, gesturing 3-D caricature of herself (an “avatar”). They’re sitting beside one another on a couch in what appears to be a well-appointed Swiss chalet. The girls in turn see their father’s avatar on their screens, seated in a nearby armchair.

“And we sit there, around the fire, just talking,” Melcher says. The talk floats up over their heads in chat balloons, or, bandwidth permitting, their voices ring out through computer speakers. Other sounds drift in from outside the chalet, where the skiing isn’t quite what it is in the real world, but, thanks to the physics programmed into the system, it’s convincing enough to challenge even the fastest-fingered videogamers. “So then we’ll go out on the slopes together and do some runs,” Melcher continues. “I’ll try to do some tricks, and the girls will make fun of me…. And it’s not that anything we say will in itself be particularly significant, but the experience will just be richer, more meaningful, than any we could have through existing telecommunications.”,1640,47157,00.html