It has a population approaching 1 million. The "people" there make friends, build homes and run businesses. They also play sports, watch movies and do a lot of other familiar things. They even have their own currency, convertible into US dollars.
But residents also fly around, walk underwater and make themselves look beautiful, or like furry animals, dragons or practically anything -- or anyone -- they wish.
This parallel universe, an online service called Second Life, which allows computer users to create a new and improved digital version of themselves, began in 1999 as a kind of online video game.
But now, the budding fake world is not only attracting a lot more people, it is taking on a real-world twist: Big business interests are intruding on digital utopia. Second Life is fast becoming a three-dimensional test bed for corporate marketers, including Sony BMG Music, Sun Microsystems, Nissan, Adidas/Reebok, Toyota and Starwood Hotels.
The sudden rush of real companies into so-called virtual worlds mirrors the evolution of the Internet itself, which moved beyond an educational and research network in the 1990s to become a commercial proposition -- but not without complaints from some quarters that the medium's purity would be lost.
Already, the Internet is the fastest-growing advertising medium, as traditional forms of marketing like television commercials and print advertising slow. For businesses, these early forays into virtual worlds could be the next frontier in the blurring of advertising and entertainment.
Unlike other popular online video games like World of War-craft that are competitive fantasy games, sites like Second Life meld elements of the most popular forms of new media -- chat rooms, video games, online stores, user-generated content sites like YouTube.com and social networking sites such as MySpace.com.
Philip Rosedale, the chief executive of Linden Labs, the San Francisco company that operates Second Life, said that until a few months ago only one or two real-world companies had dipped their toes in the synthetic water. Now, more than 30 companies are working on projects there, and dozens more are considering them.
"It's taken off in a way that is kind of surreal," Rosedale said, with no trace of irony.
Beginning a promotional venture in a virtual world is still a relatively inexpensive proposition compared with the millions spent on other media. In Second Life, a company like Nissan or its advertising agency could buy an "island" for a one-time fee of US$1,250 and a monthly rate of US$195. For its new campaign built around its Sentra car, the company then needed to hire some computer programmers to create a gigantic driving course and design digital cars that "in-world" people could actually drive, as well as some billboards and other promotional spots throughout the virtual world that would encourage people to visit Nissan Island.
Virtual world proponents -- including a roster of Linden Labs investors that includes Jeffrey Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com; Mitchell Kapor, the software pioneer; and Pierre Omidyar, the eBay co-founder -- say that the entire Internet is moving toward being a three-dimensional experience that will become more realistic as computing technology advances.
Entering Second Life, people's digital alter-egos -- known as avatars -- are able to move around and do everything they do in the physical world, but without such bothers as the laws of physics.