KA Worlds, an offshoot of the La Crescenta, Calif.-based software company Knowledge Adventure, next year will enter the increasingly crowded online services business with Interactive World's Fair, a three-dimensional Internet-based service that will be heavy on entertainment and chat-and ads-and light on the information ser-vices and stock quotes that populate other services.
To help it assess advertisers' role in the online service, KA Worlds has signed on three agencies as consultants: Ketchum Interactive, BBDO Worldwide and Ogilvy & Mather Direct's Interactive Marketing Group. Each agency will be charged not only with helping shape the service but with bringing clients on board.
"We don't think the current paradigm of online services is the only way they can develop," said Greg Beasley, VP-sales and marketing at New York-based KA Worlds. "We're offering something closer to a game."
What KA Worlds envisions is more like virtual reality than going online. Users will be able to create personas-called Digital Actors-that enable them to traverse a world designed to look like a series of World's Fair pavilions. Billboards will talk and the Digital Actors will be able to interact with one another on the computer screen.
"A lot of what people call multimedia today is really just a picture book," Mr. Beasley said. "This is actually a space that moves around you."
KA Worlds plans to launch World's Fair next fall after a summertime test. The company hopes to sign 500,000 subscribers by 1996, an admittedly ambitious goal.
World's Fair may be one of the first online services to depend on a CD-ROM for its graphic environment. Subscribers will have to buy the disc and then connect to the Internet to go online.
For advertisers, KA Worlds' technology offers dizzying possibilities. A subscriber can walk up to a billboard advertising a car, for example, and look at it. After a few seconds, the board will spring to life, offering to take the user on a test drive. Advertisers will also have the opportunity to sponsor their own pavilions in a sort of Epcot Center-meets-online-world approach.
"There are not only sponsored pavilions, but there are also public spaces where you get into the concept of promotion and billboarding and publicity in a very unique interactive approach," said Barry Layne, VP-director of Ketchum Interactive, Los Angeles.
Ketchum will work as a strategic consultant for KA Worlds, helping it develop consumer marketing plans and bring in content providers. The relationships with BBDO and O&M are less formal, consisting mainly of an agreement to work together to develop advertising models.
"The pavilion structure of the World's Fair is one that is conducive to developing different communications messages in an environment that is fun and engaging," said Guy McCarter, VP-program development at BBDO, New York. Although no BBDO clients are committed to the project yet, Mr. McCarter said marketers like Pepsi-Cola Co., Visa International and Pizza Hut would be a natural fit.
But while most who have seen the World's Fair technology admit it's fascinating, their interest is tempered by a big "if": "If they can pull it off."
Indeed, KA Worlds has a long way to go to become a true online competitor.
The company was spun off from Knowledge Adventure earlier this year. Led by President Dave Gobel, a co-founder of Knowledge Adventure, KA Worlds did a prototype design for AT&T's PersonaLink online service and also designed the Absolut Museum disc for O&M and Absolut vodka.
While KA Worlds has the backing of Knowledge Adventure, a respected educational software developer whose investors include Steven Spielberg, its strengths may lie more in design than execution.
Theme park designer Landmark Entertainment Group will help create the look and feel of the pavilions. Much of the content will come from Knowledge Adventure and other game developers.
KA Worlds expects to charge advertisers $100,000 to $500,000 to create a pavilion, a figure some agencies are already criticizing as too high compared with other online ad prices.
Mr. Beasley defended the pricing model, saying the cost per user is competitive and the quality of the interactive experience will be higher than with other online services.
Agency executives also express concern over the aggressive rollout schedule.
"One of the things that is very good about the KA Worlds project but is also very dangerous is they have very ambitious goals for consumer rollout," Mr. Layne conceded. "Bringing marketers to the table is dependent in many ways on your consumer marketing plan."
Others wonder if the advertorial concept will work in cyberspace.
"There's no problem having a corporate presence on the 'net as long as it's appropriate or useful," said Jerry Michalski, managing editor of Release 1.0, a New York-based computer industry newsletter. But he questions whether consumers will want to pay to spend time in a marketer-sponsored area.
That's what KA Worlds will be trying to determine over the coming months.
"We don't think people will go if it's only advertising," Mr. Beasley said. "So the impression to the consumer is that it's mostly fun things to do."