Picks and Pans Main: Bytes
If the thought of a muggy Manhattan day spent standing on line to see the blockbuster "Picasso and Portraiture" exhibit at New York City's Museum of Modern Art dampens your artistic passions, take a peek online. A Web site created by two members of the artist's family (http://www. clubinternet.com/picasso) highlights about a quarter of the 220 pieces in the show. The site includes history of the works, information on the people depicted and crisp, downloadable images. Olivier Picasso, the artist's 34-year-old grandson, says his family—especially his uncle Claude, Pablo's son and trustee of the artist's estate—wanted to offer a reliable alternative to dozens of ad hoc Picasso Web sites that may be visually inauthentic or light on background and analysis. "Some don't respect colors, size or the artist," says Olivier. "We also want to allow people who are not in New York or can't afford a ticket to have a virtual tour." The museum hopes that the link between the Picasso page and their own (http://www moma.org) will lure surfers to the exhibit. If it's anything like the last Picasso show, MOMA has nothing to worry about.
Waving goodbye to your buddy the cockroach, you sidle up to the bar and squeeze next to Marvin the Martian, who is flirting with a cigarette-puffing smiley face. Suddenly, Harrison Ford materializes in the corner. "Nice avatar," you say. "Wanna head someplace less crowded?"
The action is all onscreen in a new wave of Web chat areas that will let users—represented by cartoony "avatars" (the term for a Hindu deity's earthly embodiment)—meet and mingle in lush, animated virtual worlds. Talk appears in comic-strip bubbles above the heads of the avatars, which users can choose from the chat area's standard selection or customize or even design from scratch. The two most intriguing areas are the Palace, from Time Warner Interactive (Time Warner is the parent company of Time Inc., which publishes PEOPLE), and Worlds Chat, from Worlds Inc. In the more freewheeling Palace, enterprising hackers have already devised ways to make their avatars morph and utter sounds (free starter software at http://www.thepalace.com; $20 for full privileges). Worlds Chat's Doom-like 3-D navigation is its biggest asset (download free at http://www.worlds.net/wc). The main drawback of CompuServe's elaborate WorldsAway is that members must rack up tokens doled out for time spent online to "purchase" groovier threads (or heads) for their preppy, humanoid starter avatars. Well behind the pack: Microsoft Network's V-Chat, with mute avatars wandering aimlessly as text scrolls by in a separate window. Still, V-Chat's surreal settings are inspired; in one, cartoons of fantastic bugs creep across a brightly colored background.
Avatars are a great leap forward, but users patient enough to set up these systems—all of which require time-consuming software downloads—must still endure the usual banal banter of Net chat ("Where are you from? What's the weather like there?"). Some things never change.