SAN RAFAEL – A team of artists with a technical bent is preparing to launch an interactive virtual world that its founder said will expand significantly beyond the wildly popular Second Life.

Richard Childers, founder and chief executive officer of Virtual Space Entertainment (VSE), said the site Blue Mars is "Second Life on steroids," with better graphics, reality-based games and entertainment and interactive science exhibits produced in conjunction with the Smithsonian's National Museum, the National Geographic Society and NOVA.

The Blue Mars platform was developed and is owned by Avatar Reality of Hawaii. VSE has licensed the platform.

VSE has also licensed face-modeling technology from Big Stage Entertainment in Pasadena to create such realistic avatars that the Smithsonian Museum will open a kiosk next year where visitors can have their features mapped for avatar adventures on Blue Mars.

"We spent two years wrestling with the technical challenges of creating a high-definition virtual world, and when we had our engine in shape we began to think about what kind of world it would be," said Mr. Childers, who has led digital production teams for more than 25 years, producing animation, interactive CD ROMs, software, games and Web sites.

After discovering that more money is spent in the U.S. on museum visits than sporting events, he and his 24-member team decided to build their world around scientific wonders and possibilities, including the colonization of another planet.

Visitors to Blue Mars can choose among widely disparate activities, some involving current displays or shows on the science channels. The current terracotta warrior exhibit at the National Geographic Museum is now available for interactive viewing on the Blue Mars beta site, as is the early hominid study at the Smithsonian Museum.

"Education is not our aim but rather entertainment based on real data and research," said Mr. Childers. In a virtual interactive lab set up with a grant from the National Science Foundation, users can put their own features on an early hominid and watch it in motion.

Children accustomed to hunt-and-shoot video games can enter an ancient forest and stalk ancestors of today's animal species and shoot them, but not to kill.

The idea is to capture a bit of DNA, so stalking is up close and dangerous. But if they're successful, they can take it back to the lab and breed new species from different DNA samples.

VSE revenues will come from sales of virtual exhibit admission; rental or purchase of virtual vehicles, such as personal submarines; leases and sales of virtual property, avatar clothing and accessories; and other virtual sources as well as the purchase of real items from online museum gift shops.

Second Life pioneered the concept of virtual real estate dealings and currency – called Linden dollars – that can be exchanged for dollars, Euros or yen. Blue Mars currency will be the solar.

Visitors to Second Life spend an average of $140 a year on virtual leases and merchandise.

"We expect Blue Mars to generate more than that," said Mr. Childers. "Our technology can support many, many more concurrent users.""

Lots of people are already setting up shops on the beta sites, he said. Nike is very interested in being involved in the hominid motion features.

Other revenues will come from the VSE team's production of graphics for users and a very radical, personalized advertising model under development, he said.

VSE raised about $4 million from angel and private-equity investments. It's in the process of closing another $1 million.

"That's a drop in the bucket to production companies like Sony, but we think our vision and the talent and technological ability of our team will take us a long way on relatively little money," he said.

Projections call for 100,000 users on Blue Mars by the year 2010, growing to 1 million in another year and 6 to 7 million in three years. If users spend the same amount on Blue Mars that they do on Second Life, VSE could be generating $900 million within 5 years.

Mr. Childers said the current staff will grow to about 60 or 70 within six months and 200 in a year. The company has the potential to double its new, 8,000-square-foot studio in San Rafael.

"Eventually, we'd like to outsource some of our animation to overseas technicians, but we'll need to train them. The type of high-definition graphics we're producing is very time and labor intensive," Mr. Childers said.

"But we're sure having fun," he added.

To take a tour of Blue Mars and its environs, visit www.virtualspaceentertainment.com and choose Explore, then Media. For more information on Blue Mars or to download the beta, visit www.bluemarsonline.com.