CHAT ROOMS, THOSE MAINSTAYS of online services, are getting a new look from Japan. These chat rooms are graphical 3-D versions of a place where members now communicate by typing text. In the new version, you move onscreen as a cartoon character called an "avatar," interacting with other kindred souls in electronic form. This baby step toward virtual reality, named WorldsAway, is slated to be available in July from CompuServe--licensed from Japan's Fujitsu Cultural Technologies.
Here's how it works: First, you choose a body and a head for your avatar--part animal, part human, whatever. Mixing and matching is encouraged. Your typed comments appear in a dialogue bubble over your character's head, as in a comic strip. In Japan, where Fujitsu launched its first electronic community five years ago, people throw "head parties" for friends to try on your collection of heads.
There are other cyber-schemes in the works. Knowledge Adventure Worlds and Landmark Entertainment Group plan to launch their own 3-D Interactive World's Fair by yearend on the Internet.