Is this the age of the online avatar?
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.
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.
It's far from perfect. Graphics aren't always fluid, though Linden continues to hone them (it has no plans yet to add a tactile component, Miller says). A fair amount of Second Life discourse evokes the base banter of early AOL chat rooms; cybersex and gambling are very popular here.
Damer, who bought the rights to an advanced multi-user, real-time Web-chat platform called Traveler in 2001, points to the enormous time investment required of users to learn the ropes. Despite costume options that he says remind him of the performance-art festival Burning Man, Damer is put off by the emphasis on dance moves – writhing avatars pack virtual clubs – and by the relative uniformity of body type among its avatars.
"It becomes a kind of vanity fair," he says. "And I think it's pulling not just from a social-network thing but also from a primping network."
Technological issues exist too. Assuming the arrival of a superfunded player like Google, Damer says, and a standard could emerge.
"[But] I'm not sure that any 3-D platform, no matter how richly endowed and how open, has the capacity to become a broadly based open 'metaverse' that satisfies most people's needs and is around for 25 or 30 years," he says.
Another hurdle to broad participation in avatar worlds: Fantasy playgrounds actually don't work particularly well as social networks, says Danah Boyd, a doctoral candidate at Berkeley and fellow at USC's Annenberg Center who was dubbed the "high priestess of Internet friendship" last year by the Financial Times.
"[Successful] social-network sites like MySpace ... are primarily places where you actually model your social network on the people you see all day long," in simple representations closely tied to offline identities, Ms. Boyd says.
"We want our site to be real," says Jerry Kaplan, who runs Winster.com, where "mainly older women" meet and network. Some exchange photos, he writes in an e-mail. "[But this isn't about fantasy lives, avatars, or other masks."
Immersive 3-D fantasy games require immobility and a major investment in screen time. "More time at the computer," Boyd says, "is not what most people are seeking out."
Still, immersion has its whole-hearted backers. Sarah Robbins, an English instructor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., sees Second Life and its avatars as both tools and object of study.
"We talk about how to 'unpack' certain types of messages," says Ms. Robbins, who teaches as Intelligirl, an extreme version of herself.
"The students read avatars as you would read a text," says Robbins. "We see it as a form of composition."
And marketers now study what some see as an interesting inside-out effect: Real-world firms that model designs and products and gauge how avatars interact with them, drawing lessons for real-world applications.
"Aloft, the hotel chain, was doing exactly that [last fall]," says Mike Cucka, an analyst with Group 1066, a marketing consultancy in New York.
Ultimately, individual avatars are about trying on masks. Second Life lets adults engage in the kind of social experimentation that used to be the province of teens, says Robbins.
"You get to continue to play with identity, take on new forms, new lifestyles, social skills, and there are no repercussions," she says. "You're not going lose your livelihood if you lose your Second Life job."