After 20 minutes in Second Life, I'm stuck on the place. Literally. I've blundered into a tree and I can't escape. Or rather, my avatar has, that being the virtual me, a three-dimensional animated figure I control with my computer mouse and keyboard.

My avatar self looks like a Ken doll in blue jeans and a T-shirt, which is a surprise to me, since I thought I had picked the large furry rabbit. No matter. I know I can change my appearance at will in Second Life. Or at least, I can in theory. Of course, in theory I should have stayed on Orientation Island, where all Second Lifers begin their time in the virtual world, and learned how to avoid trees.

The next day I decide to change my avatar. Since I'm here on business, I try to make my avatar look like me. (What I can't do is pick my own last name, although I find out later that Linden Lab will sell me the right to create my own name. For now I'm Wenlock Jacks. Not very businesslike, perhaps.) Second Life is both a gigantic world and a finely detailed one--there are dozens of things I can do to my appearance. I can even try to match my love handles. After going through untold manipulations, I declare myself satisfied and click Save. I gasp--look at that haircut!

I realize that it's been two hours since I started. I begin to understand why people buy things in Second Life--I could have gone to, say, Dalian Enterprises, an in-world business (since you aren't going to run a human body shop in the real world) and bought a new body for 300 Linden dollars. That's about $1.25 in real money. It beats two hours of my time to get bad hair.

Second Life can be frustrating. It's slow, and after a week I have no idea how to use gestures, or much control over where I look. I am uncertain about buying property here and building on it, though I would probably enjoy it. Over the past week, I've spent an hour or two (or three) each day in this world. That's just not enough time to understand the lay of the virtual land.

But a week is enough time to see that for all its irritating clunkiness, Second Life is intriguing. There are elaborately designed temples on Svarga, the experimental weather simulator built by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and an exact model of a planned Starwood Hotel. Given another generation or two of technology, homebuilders, architects, and interior designers might create photorealistic buildings and rooms, easy to change, that will smooth real-world projects. Retailers could go from today's two-dimensional websites to full three-dimensional stores that would give consumers more natural ways to shop while online. You could go see your favorite band "live." I like my world, but I can see why I might want to spend time in a virtual one.