You could blame Neal Stephenson. His 1992 cult novel, Snow Crash, envisioned the Metaverse, a three-dimensional realm of cyberspace in which people of the near future could walk, talk, fight, make love, all while wearing online ''bodies'' called avatars. Aside from the fact that the real world in Snow Crash was a living hell, the Metaverse summed up a lot of readers' hopes of where the wired world was heading.
The fact is, the Metaverse is already here. Sort of. Three currently accessible ''virtual chat'' worlds offer a rudimentary version of Stephenson's vision, and Bill Gates is readying a fourth. At the very least, these represent a graphic improvement over the text-based chat seen on such services as America Online or in Internet Relay Chat (IRC): Now you can plug your modem into vast worlds, take on the visual persona of whomever or whatever you'd like to be, and talk to people around the planet via cartoon word balloons. It sounds suspiciously like the death of intimacy, until you notice something: Nobody has much to say just yet.
The Palace (software available at http://www.thepalace.com) may be the most elastic of the VC worlds in terms of what you can look like and where you can go (the proprietary software, like this magazine, is owned by Time Warner). Once you install the software and pay a $20 fee, you enter the main Palace site and are handed a generic smiley-face avatar. But since you can also scan in any image and change your look at whim, a lot of the action in this virtual world involves people trading ''faces'' and discussing avatar-building techniques. In effect (and at its worst), it's a water cooler for design geeks.
The many rooms in the main Time Warner palace, static though they are, are gorgeous to behold, and it's nice that you can build your own palace universe if your computer's powerful enough (the website listed above has pointers to, among others, Cybertown's and the Fox network's palace sites). But actual discussion, so far, has taken a back seat to rude-boy attitude and visual showboating. It's like being at a frat party peopled by Japanese comic-book characters and women in lingerie.
By contrast, WorldsAway (CompuServe, Go Away; software available at http://www.worldsaway.com) is as sober as the morning after a frat party. You need to be a CompuServe subscriber to play here, and like that service, WA has lots of rules and not much flexibility. Visually, WA's fantasy city of Kymer is a series of pastel dreamscapes that flip by like backgrounds on a diorama; while you have a decent choice of heads and bodies from which to construct an avatar, they all have a creepy Barbie-doll quality.
Worse, it takes forever to get anyplace. But at least Kymer resembles a functioning society, with shops, a monetary system, its own newspaper, bingo games, and the true mark of civilization muggers. It seems that hacker thugs have taken to stealing the heads of innocent avatars, which makes me think cyberinsurance policies can't be far behind. Oh, one other thing WorldsAway has: Germans. Lots of Germans. Turns out that CompuServe is the No. 1 online service in Deutschland, so you may want to dust off your Berlitz tapes before you log on.
Then there's the PC-only Worlds Chat (http://www.kaworlds.com), the easiest VC universe to navigate and, yes, the most sex crazed. Cruising around is an unsettlingly fluid experience: It's very much like Doom, without weapons. The various avatars are 3-D as well (you can design your own, but the process isn't as easy as with The Palace), and as you bop around psychedelic space-station hallways, you may feel as though you've entered an unhinged Star Wars sequel.
You may also notice that nobody's talking, at least out loud.
Like all chat software, WC lets you send private messages, but
it also enables you to talk in private groups, so there's no
real impetus for public discourse. Besides, most here have one
thing on their minds, and it ain't badminton. The typical
experience is stumbling into a room, seeing two avatars nose to
nose over in the corner, and realizing just as at any cocktail
party that three's a crowd. Bizarre? Sure. Sick? Maybe. A sign
of modern alienation? Unquestionably. Yet in a way it's a relief
to know that even in this newest of mediums, there's a place for
the oldest of urges.
The Palace: B
Worlds Chat: B