Sirens of Cyberspace
Tall, slim, with long dancer's legs and a mane of auburn hair, she exudes a glossy star quality. Factor in her martial-arts prowess, sharp-shooting skills, the Swiss finishing school polish, and the books she's written, and her fame seems understandable.Skip to next paragraph
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Her posters blanket Paris subways, her face adorns magazine covers. Web sites extol her virtues and hype a coming coffee-table book.
But Lara Croft is a fake. A gorgeous, kick-boxing computer concoction. Ms. Croft is the product of software engineers and the star of the "Tomb Raider" game series that has sold 6 million copies internationally. There are even bigger things ahead. Croft may be nothing more than a passel of pixels, but she has just landed herself a movie deal with Paramount.
Croft is one of the world's few "virtual idols," the product of a potent cross-pollination of technology, the media, and a celebrity-obsessed culture.
But on the virtual evolutionary scale, she's just a tadpole.
The technology that gave birth to her will soon allow long-dead actors to return to entertain us again. And it won't be much longer before it changes the way you play, learn, and live.
One day, futurists say, your child will learn about the US Constitution by flicking on a computer and talking to Thomas Jefferson.
If all this sounds like the stuff of science fiction, it was, not so long ago. In 1996, science-fiction writer William Gibson produced the taut thriller "Idoru," named for the Japanese term for idol. His character, Rei Toei, is a virtual idol who has taken the next evolutionary step. She has developed a consciousness, a soul in her machinery, and she wants to marry a human.
Within months of the book's release, the world's first virtual idol made her debut in Tokyo. For the Vancouver, British Columbia-based Mr. Gibson, his first sighting of sweet-faced Kyoko Date produced goose bumps.
"I had this very slow modem and I was watching this image emerge [on her Web site]," he remembers. "And I thought, 'She's there!' "
Now Ms. Date has company. Besides Croft, there is a Korean cyberstar named Adam, who recently released an album and made a TV commercial with a human co-star.
An Italian construct named Rachel stars in a game that's popular in Germany and the Netherlands. And Date has new virtual colleagues in Japan. Date's creator says it makes sense that virtual idols were born here. "Japanese have always been good at creating and inhabiting virtual space," says Yoshitaka Hori, vicepresident of HoriPro, Inc. "In the US, software games are all about fighting, like "PacMan." In Japan, role-playing software that allows people to expand their world [is what] sells."
Mr. Hori, whose agency also represents human talent, points out that the business benefits of a virtual star translate internationally. They don't age or throw tantrums, they can master any language or skill, and can appear in more than one place at the same time. "Real people have limits," he says.
Hollywood thinks so too and is busy improving on mere mortals. You probably haven't noticed, but in the last few years virtual actors have become a Tinseltown staple. In the film "Titanic," for instance, many of the figures falling off the decks of the giant ocean liner are digitally created apparitions. Now imagine a sequel to "Casablanca," starring a virtual Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman's daughter, Isabella Rossellini. Or a virtual James Dean teaming up with Julia Roberts. Or the King, selling cheeseburgers for McDonald's maybe.