Roam the Web with Your Weblin Avatar

Allegedly, surfing the Web is a leisure activity for a growing number of people. I wouldn’t know—my job as a technology blogger obliges me to surf the Web all day at work, so if I have to use the Web from home, it’s usually because I’m taking care of some task like paying bills, uploading photos, or getting driving directions. But for people who do use the Web as a hangout, there are more and more ways to make it a social experience. And one company, Hamburg, Germany-based Weblin, is optimistic enough about the future of its animated chat service—which gives surfers inch-tall avatars that can communicate directly with the avatars of other Weblin members visiting the same Web pages—that it has expanded to the United States, starting with an office outside Boston.

If you belonged to Weblin (I’m guessing the name is a combination of “Web” and “gremlin”) and you had downloaded the company’s Windows-based plugin, your customized avatar or small-w weblin would be standing on the status bar at the bottom of this browser window right now. If another Weblin member happened to be reading this Xconomy article at the same time, their weblin would also appear. You could then chat, joke, or flirt with that person via text balloons that show up above your weblin, the same way avatars communicate in virtual worlds like Second Life.

You can even make your weblin smile, wave, dance, or run. So what Mystery Science Theater 3000 did for horrible B-movies and what Lycos Cinema is doing for online video, Weblin does for the entire Web (although in practice, you’ll only run into other weblins at a small fraction of websites, since there are only about 10,000 to 100,000 Weblin users online at any given time).

Weblins in their environment“Even with social networking, the Web is not a social place; a typical website doesn’t allow you to chat with other visitors,” says Jan Andresen, Weblin’s co-founder and CEO, who’s based in Hamburg but was traveling on the East Coast when I reached him by phone last week. Yes, Andresen acknowledges, you can leave a text comment at your friend’s blog or their Facebook Super-Wall. But that’s like deciding you’re only going to communicate with your family by leaving sticky notes on the fridge, he says. “Why not interact instantly with other people, make jokes, and see their reactions? It’s so much more normal.”

Well, “normal” if you don’t mind a bunch of cartoon characters sauntering around your Web browser. And the 20- to 35-year-old users who are Weblin’s main target audience probably don’t. (Indeed, the system still bears the stamp of the virtual-classroom application, developed by CTO and co-founder Heiner Wolf, on which it’s based.) But for older or more mission-oriented Web users like me, Andresen agrees, a crowd of weblins might be a distraction. “If you have to book a flight or finish your spreadsheet, you don’t do it in a pub,” he says. “But maybe you’re at home, you’re bored, you have a glass of wine next to you, and you just want to be entertained. We call that moment ‘chilling.’ For that time, Weblin is ideal.”

Andresen and Wolf launched Weblin in 2006 and have raised $1.3 million in funding from a combination of private investors and the High Tech Grunderfonds, a public-private initiative that invests in early-stage technology startups in Germany. The startup’s technology is built atop XMPP, an open-source instant messaging platform formerly known as Jabber. Andresen says that Weblin hit the 1-million-member mark in September, and that about 10,000 people are downloading the Windows plugin every day. (There’s also a purely browser-based version of the system called “Weblin Lite” that works on Mac and Linux computers, but it assigns you a random avatar that does not persist as you travel from Web page to Web page.)

The company hopes to make money in two ways. The first, more predictable revenue stream will come from selling ads, which will pop up in the same transparent layer over the browser window that the weblins themselves inhabit. But while that may sound like another annoying distraction, Andresen says … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “Roam the Web with Your Weblin Avatar”

  1. Philip says:

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