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New Technologies Promise Enriched Human Contact

August 12, 1996|Jonathan Weber | Jonathan Weber is editor of The Cutting Edge

Technology can sometimes help solve the very problems it creates, or so we'd like to think. And thus Internet evangelists have long embraced the notion that online communications might enable people to overcome the isolation and social alienation that afflicts so many in our highly individualistic, hyper-competitive high-tech world.

But while social relations on the Internet are indeed becoming important to many people, the mechanisms remain somewhat crude. There's e-mail, of course, a very powerful tool but limited in its one-to-one nature and reliance on simple text.

There are live chat areas--America Online, with more than 6 million customers--relies on chat for 30% to 50% of all traffic, observers estimate, and many World Wide Web sites now have their own chat rooms--but very often online chat tends toward the erotic or idiotic.

There are online forums where you can post messages, but again the quality and dynamism of the discussions is, to put it charitably, varied. So-called multi-user domains and games in which people join in creating a fantasy environment appeal to some, but efforts to use video and virtual reality technologies to make such "worlds" more compelling are handicapped by technical limitations.

Now, though, a new generation of Internet software and services is emerging that aims to improve dramatically the medium's ability to facilitate interesting and enriching human contact. They were the hottest thing going at the recent Spotlight conference in Laguna Niguel, a gathering of interactive-media executives. And although none of them will appeal to everyone, a few stand a chance of becoming truly important.

Among the most interesting of the new ventures is a Santa Monica start-up called PeopleLink. PeopleLink, the first fruit of IdeaLab, a technology hothouse formed by entrepreneur and Knowledge Adventure founder Bill Gross, is building software tools that will help people better connect with one another online.

"There are two great things about the Internet," says Steve Glenn, PeopleLink's chief executive, who at 32 is already a veteran of the Southern California interactive-media scene. "It's a very quick and cost-effective way to connect with information, and it's the most effective way ever for communities of people to find each other. But connecting with people is not nearly as efficient as it could be."

PeopleLink's planned services include a kind of TV Guide for chat, by which people will be able to look up what kind of online conversations are taking place all over the Internet; a directory for finding people of like backgrounds or interests; a system for enabling people who meet online to connect anonymously over the phone; and an alert service for letting people know when others of like interests are online.

Glenn acknowledges that the most obvious application for this sort of thing is dating. There's plenty of competition in this area, with services like ( well as the myriad print publications that have put their personal listings online--offering increasingly sophisticated electronic matchmaking services.

In a society where many of the traditional forums for single people to meet one another have crumbled--and where real-world encounters with strangers can sometimes be downright dangerous--online dating looks like a sure-fire growth industry.

But PeopleLink aims to do much more than that. "We're not focused on any one space," says Glenn, stressing that people have many different reasons--both personal and professional--to seek out others in cyberspace.

If PeopleLink is directed at finding worthwhile conversations, several other fledgling services are using exotic technology to improve and vary the experience once you get there. The idea is to create a "virtual world" in which people can interact not just via text, but with custom graphic representations of themselves and other forms of expression.

OnLive, a Cupertino start-up that counts Intel and AT&T among its backers (, is marrying virtual worlds with the Internet's ever-improving voice communications capabilities. In the OnLive world, as your graphical image, or avatar, moves closer to other people, you can hear them and participate in their conversation. If it's dull, you can walk away and the other voices fade as you do so.

Microsoft has a variety of chat-type services under development, and perhaps the most novel is Comic Chat. It enables people to become characters in a running comic: You can choose your character and control its expressions, and the words you type appear as conversation in the classic cartoon balloons.

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