Marc Singer sits on a couch, his shoes off, a phone in his ear, a laptop on his knees. At a round kitchen table, his friend Paul Maya works on two computers -- an ancient Macintosh from his high school days and a PC that is even older.
As Paul tries to save a file on the PC, it crashes.
It is November 1995, the middle of a decade that began at the financial bottom and will end in an economic bonanza beyond all imagining. Marc, 26, and Paul, 23, have quit their jobs and are holed up in Paul's one-bedroom walkup in Hoboken, N.J. Their only reliable source of cash is a plastic Halloween pumpkin filled with loose change.
The two have risked financial stability for an idea: that the future of the Internet -- and hence, entertainment -- will be shaped by interactive stories, told by characters so lifelike they appear to have minds of their own.
Over cans of soup and pizza slices from Benny's downstairs, Marc and Paul try to flesh out this vision. What would an interactive character look like on the Internet? How would you create one technologically? And what kind of company will hire them to build such a beast?
Wearing a path between the bookshelves and Paul's refrigerator, Marc talks about interactivity. His ideas are the stuff of childhood: videos like Choose Your Own Adventure, books like the mysteries of Encyclopedia Brown. And cartoons.
The most magical moments in Looney Tunes, Marc tells his friend, come when Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny faces the camera and speaks directly to the viewer. It's like the TV is talking to you! What if you could talk back?
On his laptop, Marc searches the World Wide Web for anything truly interactive. But most information on the Internet has simply been repurposed, or converted, from other media. Online book stores sell books. Online TV and radio stations broadcast text and pictures from their regular shows.
For the Internet, this is prehistory -- something like the early days of television when announcers stood still in front of microphones and read scripts.
The Internet's untapped advantage, as Marc and Paul see it, is that individual users, sitting at their computers, can participate in the stories that unfold online. The characters could be customized, appearing differently depending on how the computer user at home behaves.
So far, the young entrepreneurs in Northern California's Silicon Valley have built only an infrastructure for the Internet -- software, browsers, Web pages. They have not exploited the medium's storytelling possibilities.
Holding attention spans on the Internet will require creating an interactive experience that conveys information, entertainment or a message.
This means building a new world full of electronic imagined friends. And that calls for a new kind of storytelling so vivid, so alive, that Internet users will feel as though they are living in the story.
"Storydwelling," the two young men begin to call it.
How will they create such tales? Gamely, Paul pounds out some very crude programming code in the kitchen, but he does not get far. Marc, tossing a tennis ball, takes one look at the code and seems lost. They are comforted only by the newness of their idea.
"No one in the world has experience doing this," Marc says. "There's no training for it."
Unless you count a boyhood in Baltimore.
The young man who dreams of propelling interactive characters onto the Internet was launched himself at Greater Baltimore Medical Center on April 7, 1969. Marc was the first child of Marti, a British-born office manager, and Marvin Singer, an East Baltimore native who became a downtown lawyer. Neither had ever known a character as stubborn as this boy.
At 2, Marc went with his mother to pre-school at Brown Memorial Church in Bolton Hill one day a week. During one class, the teacher handed out plastic smocks and instructed the toddlers to paint. After a few brushstrokes, they wandered away to play with other things.
"But not Marc Singer," recalls Marti. "He stays there the whole lesson painting. And he doesn't stop 'til every piece of paper is covered with paint."
The training of the Internet artist continued from there. A Montessori teacher made Marc practice Japanese poetry, imprinting in the 5-year-old the crisp, brief writing style that would shape the Internet's first interactive characters. Another instructor gave him a prize for a poem comparing Ronald Reagan to a bowl of potatoes, reinforcing Marc's whimsy. At home on Northcliff Drive in Mount Washington, Marc spent hours playing video games and watching "Scooby-Doo" and "Get Smart" reruns, absorbing their timing, instincts and language.