Designed for third-generation (3G) mobile phones, the computer-animated girlfriend is the brainchild of Nasdaq-listed Artificial Life and looks all set to grind the traditional phone games of Tetris and Snakes into the dirt, using the tip of an exceptionally sharp-looking high heel.

Based in Hong Kong, the firm is run by Eberhard Schoneburg, a German specialist in artificial intelligence. Falling foul of the dot.com bubble, Schoneburg upped and moved to East Asia, the home of the Tamogotchi virtual pet that several years ago caused disruption in classrooms worldwide.

Virtual Girlfriend (VG) expands dramatically upon the Tamogochi notion (in which you had to both feed and play with your electronic pal in order to keep them alive and well).

Lonesome belle

Shaped and clothed according to regional markets - the Hong Kong version is sporting an in-vogue Japanese trim and changes from tight hot pants to slinky black dress to bathing towel - the VG uses graphics compatible with modern-day computer games. 

"She is designed to be
a typical woman, hard
to please and high maintenance"

Eberhard Schoneburg,
German inventor of Virtual Girlfriend

For a monthly fee (in Hong Kong $HK50-100, between $6-12) you log in and see your lonesome belle in a bar, driving her car or working out in the gym.

Targeting the 15-35 age group, communication is all done by short messaging (SMS).

Artificial Life has invested some $30 million on machinery capable of processing and responding to all manner of queries and statements.

For example, offer to buy her a gym membership and she might thank you or accuse you of thinking her fat, depending upon the level of friendship you have built up. More voyeuristic requests though will most likely be followed by a blunt retort.

"She is designed to be a typical woman, hard to please and high maintenance," Schoneburg told Aljazeera.net with a wide grin on his face.

Read her diary

Destined for release on 15 November in both Southeast Asia, Germany and the UK, the VG measures its would-be suitors on the basis of six criteria including log-in frequency, intelligence, romance and consideration.

Recording your responses, the VG learns and adapts to your personality while you adapt to hers, but unlike reality, you are encouraged to read her diary to see how you are being rated.

VG creator Schoneburg moved to
East Asia after the dot.com bust

"You need to follow her every day, otherwise she will get angry with you. Our computers are programmed to recognise phone numbers so we can keep tabs on how often someone interacts with her," said Schoneburg.

Like real life, you look after when she is sick, and buy her gifts to keep her happy or offset some callous remark, and like real life gifts of flowers or jewelry will cost you real money, around $HK8 ($1) for a diamond ring.

Forget some important date like a one-month anniversary and you could be in hot water.

All about timing

"A simple buying of gifts though does not produce a linear result. Like real life, it is all about timing," explains Schoneburg, who feels that in Asia,especially, normally shy men might like to use the VG as practice for the real thing.

Build up points with your VG and you can progress to the next level where she will introduce you to her girlfriends, or perhaps invite you out for a meal to her favourite restaurant.

In addition to subscription fees, Artificial Life hopes to make the bulk of their profits from product placements.

Akin to modern-day Hollywood blockbusters in which companies pay for the film's hero to use their brand of car or trainers, the idea is to have companies pay to get their product on to the screen.

So when logging in, you could find your VG sporting a new Gucci handbag, or driving an Audi convertible.

For Schoneburg the fruition of 20 years work in artificial intelligence, the VG is being billed as the first of its kind, as well as a new twist on the applicability of 3G technologies.

Male audience

"Really, people have not thought about the use of 3G mobile phones. At present people just talk about putting television on to the mobile phone but the potential is much greater," says Schoneburg, who is also looking at creating a virtual news anchor who can host news bulletins beamed on to your mobile. 

A cyber companion for a heart to
heart chat may yet materialise

Pitched at a predominantly male audience, the VG can also just act as a platonic friend, posing the question as to whether humans may one day turn to their cyber-companion for a heart-to-heart chat.

"It's hard to say at this point, but this is a new level of interaction between computer and human. I am not sure where it will lead," says Schoneburg.

There are plans to launch a Virtual Boyfriend version next year. But the bad news is that for those looking to brush up on a few floral phrases in preparation for the real dating game, the VG might be a little hard of hearing.

"It may be able to do some poetry," says Schoneburg, "but Shakespeare or love sonnets? I don't think so."