Have you ever lost touch with old friends who left town? Sure, you could call or email them--but that can feel like a poor substitute for actually being with them. What you need is some kind of virtual world where you can just hang out in one another's company.
That's the idea behind a new online service called There, which launches next week for Windows PCs ($50 a year at there.com) Think of it as a 3-D chat room: your onscreen characters talk as you type, with speech balloons coming out of their heads. They blink, breathe and nod when you type yes. Start throwing in actions like winking, yawning, gasping, even burping--and what you've got is conversation that looks like a cartoon yet feels uncannily real.
Plenty of activities are available--dune-buggy racing, dog training, jet packing--but don't confuse There with a video game. Nobody's keeping score. It's more like a massive playdate. Everything from the cute Toy Story--style graphics to the clothing stores where characters can dress up in the latest fashions (provided courtesy of Levi's and Nike) is designed to give you something to chat about.
It works. Tens of thousands signed up for prelaunch testing, even though There had space for only 2,000 at first. Will it keep working? That's for you and your friends to find out.
--By Chris Taylor