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Is this the age of the online avatar?

By Clayton CollinsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 16, 2007



SECOND LIFE

Eloise from Britain suggests that I slip into a new skin, something more refined, so I won't look like "such a newbie." But around the corner a bearded German clearly takes me to be a walking Rough Guide, asking where he can teleport to watch soccer.

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I must have gained some credibility since my straight-out-of-Wonderland exchange on Orientation Island. That's where blob-bodied Chatmaster Phrett told me to invoke the word "hexahedron" and placate the volcano goddess.

It's just another day online in Second Life, the widely discussed virtual social world that's been called "MySpace meets 'The Matrix.' " More than 4.5 million people worldwide have registered to create avatars, electronic alter egos that range from idealized humanoids to the winged and way (way) out.

As fantastic as they are, avatars keep taking steps toward the kind of virtual reality experts have promised for decades. On March 7, Linden Labs, the California firm whose massive servers have hosted Second Life for three years, announced the beta testing of an integrated voice function that could substitute, as desired, for typed exchanges that appear on screen.

"We know where other [avatars] are in your audible range," says Joe Miller, a Linden vice president. New software mimics the human ear so that voices come from "wherever they are."

That move and others go toward creating what Mr. Miller calls a "persistent space." He predicts a near future in which far-flung family members circle a virtual campfire, in photo-realistic avatar form, on a regular basis.

So is this the dawning of the Age of the Avatar?

Some experts in online communities see technologies and behaviors converging fast – the all-ages online-social-networking boom meets advanced desktop systems that play like life for the potent-PC set. Others doubt that avatars will become Web users' regular representatives online – tools as ubiquitous as AIM – despite advances on that front by firms such as imvu.com, which already offers avatar-to-avatar chat.

But most agree that avatars have gone mainstream.

"I did hundreds of talks in the '90s about avatars," says Bruce Damer, the renowned avatar guru from northern California and CEO of DigitalSpace.com, an Internet-content firm that creates 3D imaging for its clients. "There were all kinds of projects then," Mr. Damer says, including Worlds Chat and AlphaWorld. "But it's just [now] reached some kind of tipping point."

A dozen years ago, avatars were best known to avid readers of Wired and cultish young players of "massively multiplayer" online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft. Now Second Life 30-somethings look for cyber jobs selling intellectual property for Linden dollars.

It's not just people with too much time on their first-life hands (and $10 a month for a premium membership). Businesses both real and virtual thrive in-world. Reuters recently established a Second Life news bureau. Presidential candidates have built campaign headquarters. Major League Baseball has a presence. Some 70 colleges and universities, including Harvard, now teach classes inside Second Life.

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