After four years of development, a virtual world on the Internet called "There" opened for its first public test last week. The three-dimensional universe (www.there.com is designed to offer people a new way of socializing in cyberspace, presenting realistic sounds and sights that mirror the physics, economy and psychology of the real world.

Well, almost. Sex is forbidden (you can't take off your clothes or do more than a peck on the cheek), and virtual money called "Therebucks" will be sold to players for real cash to help generate revenue for There's creators.

"There" doesn't require a broadband connection -- it's designed to run over dial-up Internet access -- but it does require special software, which is mailed to dial-up users after they register. Membership will be free until "There" officially launches in the fall, after which a monthly fee (probably $10) will be charged.

Users assume a customizable cartoon-like identity called an avatar and communicate with text that appears in bubbles over their heads. People with broadband access can talk through microphones and listen to shared music and sound effects. "There" also has a virtual store where advertisers sell virtual goods; Nike and Levi's are the first retailers.

Tom Melcher, chief executive of There Inc., described the new world as an "online getaway" for socializing and fun when he announced it in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

"There" shares characteristics with online games such as Sims Online and Everquest, but it is not a game, Melcher said. It's meant to be a destination where people can do lots of things -- race dune buggies, fly on hoverboards, flirt, hang out with their dogs -- but it has no defined objectives. "There" offers tools for people to create their own worlds and virtual lifestyles. The company also hopes to make money licensing its tools to other companies such as ski resorts to create their own virtual environments.

Women are the key target audience, Melcher said, because research shows women are more inclined to be sociable in cyberspace. There's creators hope where women go, men will soon follow.

Dawson's Creek Made-to-Order Music

It's hard to imagine fans would go this crazy, but Sony Pictures Television launched a Web site last week to let fans of the TV show "Dawson's Creek" create their own custom music CDs. The site (www.dawsonscreekcds.com ) presents fans with a menu and lets them choose which of 75 songs played on the show they want on their CDs, which Sony (producer of "Dawson's Creek") then mails to purchasers. Also available are eight prearranged compilations, each costing $11.95.

Banners, Be Gone

Ask Jeeves, the Web search service, announced last week that it had banished all banner ads from its site and would attempt to make up the lost revenue by selling more "keyword" ads. Those are typically text ads that appear on the results pages when people run searches.

Baseball Tickets on the Net

Major League Baseball is stepping up efforts to sell tickets online. MLB, which said more than 5 million tickets were sold on the Internet last year, announced last week that it had signed deals with Ticketmaster and Tickets.com to make them "preferred providers" of tickets online. Baseball fans will be able to buy and print game tickets from those vendors and on www.mlb.com.

E-mail Leslie Walker at walkerl@washpost.com