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THE CUTTING EDGE / CYBERCULTURE

Now Entering Willisville; Please Drive Interactively

Media: A virtual world five years in the making is set to 'drag the masses into the 21st century.'

June 02, 1997|WENDY GOLDMAN ROHM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For five years now, the Grammy Award-winning songwriter Allee Willis and her Emmy Award-winning animation partner Prudence Fenton have been working on a virtual world they hope might realize some of the potential of the much-touted marriage of Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Today, Willisville will finally make its debut--an entertainment environment featuring 19 fictional residents and a host of diversions ranging from games and shopping to communications and self-help. Visitors will be able to interact with residents, influence what happens to them and help create and define Willisville as if it were a community in the real world.

For two weeks, Willisville will be available only on Mediadome (http://www.mediadome.com), an Internet site sponsored by Intel Corp.--which invested an undisclosed sum in the venture--and the online media company CNet. After that, it moves to its own site at http://www.willisville.com

Willis, a five-time Grammy winner and North Hollywood resident infamous for her celebrity slumber parties, has expansive ambitions for Willisville. She sees it as a hub for a broad range of media forms--including television, radio and film-- that will "drag the masses into cyberspace and the 21st century."

There have already been plenty of efforts to do that, of course. The closest analogies to what Willis is attempting are the Internet "episodics" such as "The Spot." They enable fans to communicate with virtual soap opera characters and influence how the show evolves.

Although a few of these shows have carved out a cult following, efforts to broaden their appeal have failed: American Cybercast, the company that grew out of "The Spot," filed for bankruptcy protection in January. But Willis notes that the episodics only allow online visitors to react via e-mail, whereas Willisville will offer more intimate involvement through chat, games, animation and other media forms.

"The question is how you take the mind of a fictional character with unlimited creativity that lives in virtual space and mix it with the mind of a human who has intuition, reasoning, wisdom," she says.

Intel's interest in the venture is part of it efforts to stimulate a mass entertainment audience for the PC.

"Allee and Prudence are some of the most creative people I know," said Avram Miller, Intel vice president and director of corporate business development. "For years they've realized that the PC is evolving to a new medium. They've been patient with funding. . . . We're starting to see the beginnings, with Willisville, of a whole new genre of entertainment product."

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