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.

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.

Creating virtual actors "takes tons of information digitally, and it's costly, but it's getting easier, better, and faster," says Paul Addis of Electric Sandbox, the Los Angeles firm that made Jurassic Park's dinosaurs move. "If it's done well, you don't notice."

Electric Sandbox is busy bringing Marilyn Monroe back to digital life using archival material, photographs, and live models. Another firm has licensed the images of W.C. Fields, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Marlene Deitrich from their heirs for digital re-creation. Once they're attached to artificial intelligence programs, they'll be doing casting calls again.

"Eventually we expect that they will appear in movies," says Joseph Beard, a law professor at St. John's University in New York and an expert in the field. "Whether it's good, bad, or indifferent, I'm absolutely convinced it's going to happen."

For actors who scan themselves in their prime, a digital doppelgnger could be a walking, talking retirement savings plan.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger could franchise himself out as a 'synthespian,' " says Gibson, using the freshly minted word for artificial actors. "His physical being could retire and the synthespian could keep on making Terminator movies."

Virtual technology already affects us in more ordinary ways, beyond the vicarious thrill of Lara Croft's adventures. It is used in medicine, ergonomic design work, and antiterrorist training. It has unlimited potential as an education tool and may even have social uses.

"An elderly person who's housebound might have a digital companion they could hold conversations with," suggests Mr. Beard.

Computer engineers are already working on tiny wearable computers. Computer implants - chips beneath the skin that Alvin Toffler predicted in his 1981 book, "The Third Wave" - are probably next. They could allow a constant, internal connection to cyberspace and make the virtual-human interaction described in "Idoru" a reality.

It sounds outlandish. But people like Mr. Beard are addressing legal questions raised by virtual actors that would have seemed unthinkable just 10 years ago. Tougher questions are bound to follow: Is it right to re-create someone digitally? Is this different from using a photo of a dead actor in advertisements? How can actors defend against abuse of their image after they're dead? How far should we let the pairing of digital beings and artificial-intelligence programs go?

"There might be a day when virtual people get so efficient that some real people aren't needed anymore," says Kyoko Date's creator, Hori. "That's scary."

For the time being, though, few people expect moviegoers to react badly to the possibility of seeing long-dead actors bantering with today's heartthrobs. We've been given a taste of this kind of thing before, thanks to simple cut-and-paste film techniques, and we've loved it. Coke ran a mammothly successful TV ad campaign that featured Elton John serenading Humphrey Bogart; Forrest Gump bumbled his way through history; and we've hummed along as Natalie Cole crooned "Unforgettable" on a music video with her father.

"The virtual predates the advent of what we call the virtual," Gibson says. "You wake up in an airport hotel and hear Elvis singing 'Heartbreak Hotel' on the radio, you do not freeze in primitive fear and think, 'The dead sing!' In fact, maybe you should. We've been around for a million years, and this is very new."

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