A software startup has developed a replacement for browser bookmarks that could evolve into a new form of Web-based entertainment and community. UBUBU, pronounced "you be you be you", has also signed up several companies willing to try out its new form of Web advertising.
If the software catches on, cyberspace may eventually look more like outer space. The product, called UBUBU Universe, begins with a 3D revolving planet that sits on the user's desktop and looks like interactive wallpaper. Users can "populate" the planet with 3D icons that represent hotlinks to Web sites of the user's choosing. The program, which takes less than 10 minutes to download using a dial-up modem, doesn't replace a Web browser, but launches a window when a user clicks on a site's icon.
The company says its software offers consumers a more fun and efficient way to surf the Internet. "What UBUBU lets you do is create planets where everything on the planets are things you care about, and are there because you put them there," says 35-year-old founder and chief executive, Brian Backus.
The company publicly demonstrated a preliminary version of its software at a conference on Friday in New York.
Users can create multiple planets in a solar system, each with a different theme. Once planets are created, users can email a picture of the planet and its address to friends. With the next version of the software, due later this year, users will be able to mix their personal planets with those of other users in cyberspace to form 3D galaxies -- akin to community site GeoCities' neighbourhoods.
The company is signing up Hollywood actors to create their own planets for fans, which could also bring a broader audience to UBUBU. Patrick Stewart, best known as Star Trek: The Next Generation's Captain Jean-Luc Picard, will have a planet. He has also signed up as the company's spokesman.
Stewart says he was looking for a way to become involved with the Internet -- both as a business enterprise and creatively -- when he heard of UBUBU. "It was unlike anything we had seen before," he said, referring to himself and his business partners. "It feels to me like the shift from black-and-white television to colour TV."
Backus, said he got the idea about five years ago during a conversation with his brother, Ben, a vision scientist at Stanford University. The two were sitting on a cliff in California, overlooking the ocean, when they discussed the idea that people remember information spatially. They reasoned that a consumer interface to the Web would be easier to use if sites were logically grouped together -- not just as words and folders, but in a spatial context.
"I was interested in getting people to connect emotionally to computer screens as they do with TV and film," said Backus.
When the company launches its beta release of UBUBU Universe in April, there will be six or eight pre-populated planets for users to download, each with a theme such as sports, entertainment and finance. With later versions of the software, users will be able to create their own objects and icons with their own pictures, as well as textures and tools supplied by UBUBU. The company plans to keep adding additional icons and planets after the launch, including limited-edition ones, to promote new movies and games.
Banner ads won't be citizens of UBUBU's universe. Instead, UBUBU is essentially selling 3D bookmark ads -- taking a small fee for each click-through. These ads will take the form of icons representing Web sites: Food.com's icon, for instance, is a cube with pictures of food on all sides and the words "Order Online Now".
"This is going to be the future," said Dyana Nafissi, a marketing manager for Food.com. "You turn on your computer, and maybe you have a study planet or games planet. We have a product that can be next to anything, and it seemed a great way to get that connection over and over again with users at a very low cost." Amazon.com is also an advertiser.
Some of the planets will be sponsored. For example, media company USA Networks will offer a SciFi.com planet; 3DO has the Might & Magic gaming planet; and comic book publisher Marvel Enterprises will have a Marvel planet boasting icons of Spider Man's head and Captain America's shield.
"It looks nice, it's good for branding, it presents the opportunity for us to communicate with the Marvel audience -- there are commerce transaction opportunities and potential for advertising we can participate in," said Jim Sherman, an Internet consultant for Marvel and chief executive of West End New Media in New York.
UBUBU has received one round of funding for $2m (£1.2m). It says it plans to soon close a second round from venture capital firms Arts Alliance and Advanced Technology Ventures. Its advisory board includes Mark Pesce and Tony Parisi, the co-inventors of virtual reality markup language, or VRML -- a language used to present 3D scenes online. Joy Mountford, who formerly managed Apple Computer's Human Interface Group, is working as a consultant for the company.
Analysts say the company's idea is unusual. "It's crazy enough that it just might work," said Josh Bernoff, an analyst who covers entertainment and television for Forrester Research. "It's about making the Web cool and personal."
For now, UBUBU's software is targeting consumers aged 14 to 26. UBUBU also plans to come out with a kids' version later this year, and says it may create other versions for other age groups later. "I'm not quite sure how much potential it has," said Jen Cho, a 16-year-old who has tested the software. "It seems like a lot hasn't been discovered yet. We'll probably find out more about it when we start using it regularly."
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