Ever wished you could take a vacation from real life to a place where you are always beautiful, young, rich, successful and having a great time? Over 50 million people in the world are doing this right now, in a corner of the web known as Utherverse.
Utherverse is a massively multi-player online game (MMO) that currently comprises 100,000 commercial worlds and over 1 million personal worlds.
To start, you log on and set up a profile, just like you would on a social network.
Once online, you are free to do what you want, without the constraints of everyday life. You can meet people and make friends through IM text chats, webcam or voice chat, have sex with other avatars, smoke virtual marijuana, party and explore Utherverse's red light district, hold your dream wedding, decorate your dream home or even get a virtual job – whatever you want to do or be, you can.
Lose your inhibitions online
"It's your ability to live out your fantasy. We allow users to do anything they could do in real life with their bodies," Utherverse's CEO and founder Brian Shuster told IBTimes UK.
"We decided that in the virtual world, everything should be as consequence-free as possible, so we programmed a button in that you could press to get rid of the hangover from smoking pot, when you're tired of the effect."
Shuster is well known on the web as the "Prince of Pop-Ups" – he helped to monetise the internet in the 1990s by inventing banner and pop-up ads.
There is a copious amount of sexually explicit content on Utherverse, and the first world launched in 2004 was Red Light Center, a virtual replica of Amsterdam's red light district.
"In the beginning, adult content was wildly successful on the net and that was how so many people moved onto the internet," Shuster says.
"We weren't shy about focusing on the adult content when Utherverse began, as it helped to bring people onto the virtual world. The virtual worlds that did not embrace adult content, aside from gaming worlds like World of Warcraft, have largely failed, for example Google Lively, There.com and BlueMars.com."
So who plays these games?
People who have disabilities or in need of escapism find Utherverse very attractive, according to Shuster.
One third of the Utherverse's 50 million visitors are in Europe, and 50% are in North America. Utherverse's better-known rival Second Life currently has only 38 million players.
Interestingly, 53% of Utherverse's users are women and a majority of users are university educated and in their twenties and thirties.
The game is free to download and you can earn virtual currency by being sociable, visiting other people's profiles, writing a blog and interacting with different parts of the world.
Some users choose to spend real money on buying and decorating a virtual home, and membership for adult content costs $20 (£11.90) per month.
A big draw for users is the potential to earn virtual currency from the game, which can be converted to real money.
Users can do this by providing a service to other avatars, such as opening a shop designing virtual clothes and shoes, DJ-ing or working at one of the many clubs, bars or strip clubs, being a wedding planner for virtual weddings or even teaching a course in computer programming at UtherAcademy, the game's online university.
Many companies set up their own worlds with clubs, bars and other services for sale, and Utherverse earns money from advertising their services throughout its many worlds.
Looking to the future
The Utherverse patented technology enables thousands of Internet Service Providers with networks of millions of users to be connected to the game's servers at the same time, so Shuster wants to host conventions for different industries that people can attend from their computers.
The company also plans to offer more educational services.
"Virtual worlds will be able to improve global education. The University of Arizona is doing a virtual Harlem where professors create virtual worlds for their students, recreating history," Shuster says.
Shuster is proud of what he has achieved and says that it all comes down to the community.
"I had a lot of concerns about how the internet was growing before Facebook. Friendship was becoming commoditised as people could hide behind their computers and become quite mean," he says.
"I looked to develop a community, where we could take technology and manipulate it back around to our human routes where we can have fun, and that's what we've done here. The community is really what makes this different. It's a new kind of interaction."