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As you read this, 40,000 people in the world are "in-world." This doesn't mean that these people have left our world, the real world. It means that their real bodies are sitting in front of personal computers, and their consciousnesses have embodied an "avatar" who is in another place, in another life. In "Second Life." In their second lives, these people's avatars might be playing games, meeting other people's avatars, listening to music, dancing, reading things, inventing things, teaching classes, buying and selling services and things, sitting around, exploring, discussing business, and even engaging in virtual sexual activities.

Sound creepy?

It might be creepy. But it's also "the next wave of the Internet," "a platform for learning," "an online playground," "a virtual environment," and "a new opportunity to make a whole lot of money" -- depending upon whom you ask.

According to San Francisco-based Linden Labs, the company that created it, "Second Life is a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its Residents."

There's No Difference between My Real Life and My Second Life

One of those residents, Jopsy Pendragon, has long pointy ears that wiggle. He wears hippie clothes and floppy hair, and best of all, he sports a set of removable, multicolored, fully operational dragon wings. The wings are just for show, though, since everyone where Jopsy's from can fly, and also teleport.

Pendragon is an ageless, tall, thin, blond, barefoot elfin lampmaker and lighting-effects creator in the Teal region of Second Life. His particle laboratory there is famous. If you Google the name "Jopsy Pendragon," you get around 400 hits. He's got a video on YouTube. His real person writes a blog.

Pendragon's real person, John P. Crane, is a six-foot-tall, 230-pound, 40-year-old redheaded blue-eyed information technology specialist who lives in Hillcrest and works for a small biotech company in La Jolla.

Crane not only tosses around terms like "VRML" -- which stands for virtual reality modeling language -- he's fluent in it.

"I made Jopsy Pendragon from scratch," Crane tells me. "Pretty much everything except the hair, which I bought from somebody, because I'm terrible at making hair."

Crane doesn't look the part of your average computer geek. For one thing, his clothes and his own hair, and even his condo, are all quite clean. The walls of his living room are hung with bright, abstract artwork that Crane painted himself. As he chats with me, he sits down, turns on his computer, jogs his mouse and clicks it a few times, and there we are, in the castlelike home area of the famous Jopsy Pendragon.

On the screen of Crane's personal computer, Second Life has all the trappings of a good modern video game. Everyone's motions are robotic and herky-jerky, the trees and buildings shine bright and plastic and fantastical, and everything appears realistic enough, if you don't stare at it for too long.

But Jopsy Pendragon doesn't have a gun to shoot or a car to drive; he's got nowhere to go and no enemy to kill; and as far as I can tell, he doesn't have a mission or assignment to carry out. He's just there.

"Meet Jopsy Pendragon," John P. Crane says. "He's my avatar."

In Hindu religion, an avatar was the incarnation of a deity in human form. Nowadays, the word suggests an abstract manifestation or embodiment, as in the sentence, "Approaching the year 2008, Second Life is the most advanced avatar of virtual reality."

Avatars in Second Life have got the life. They can't drown, won't age, don't have to eat (although they can), can't get hurt, don't have to go to the bathroom (although they can). No avatar is born anatomically correct (although -- get this! -- they can have genitalia built for them). Basically, avatars are ideal versions of us. Like pixelated angels or something.

And we are their creators.

Crane started visiting Second Life back near its beginning, in January 2004. He'd heard about the three-dimensional digital world from a friend in L.A. who shares an interest in virtual worlds.

Crane tells me that the earliest interactive computer platforms were bulletin-board systems. You dialed in on your modem to a single phone line, and you left messages, and someone else would call in later and add a few messages of their own. The boards got a little more complicated in the early '80s, with a couple of phone lines, and within a year or two, there was simultaneous text chat where people could type to each other.

The first color graphics (2-D, some even drawn in perspective) and on-screen characters date to the mid-'80s, and point-and-click was invented in 1987.

In 1989, James Aspnes at Carnegie Mellon University invented TinyMUD, an online arrangement of virtual places where users could go and create content for other people to explore. TinyMUD was a big step forward, because it was user created, and the virtual situations would change as the users chose to change them.

Crane himself created a version of TinyMUD, called DragonMUD, by taking the source code, inventing a theme, and inviting players. For a long while, DragonMUD was Crane's main thing on the Internet. The game helped him meet people from all over, including someone who worked at Qualcomm and who helped him get a job there. Crane ended up working at Qualcomm for over eight years.

Throughout the '90s, computer gaming continued to develop, with increasingly realistic graphics, 3-D technologies, and stereo sound.

But discerning computer experts like Crane weren't satisfied. "Even by 2003," he says, "most of the stuff out there in virtual reality was just really flat. It looked artificial, it was slow, clunky, and was really hard to use. But then my friend came down to visit, and we went into the Apple Store in Fashion Valley, and he pulled down the Second Life client right there in the store, and he started running it. So we went in and looked at things and poked around, and I thought it looked pretty cool. I agreed to sign up. At the time, it was a pay service; it cost $10 to sign up. But they've done away with that. Now it's free."

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