When I was first approached to do a piece about the history of avatars, I thought, sure. Why not? How far back could these computer-generated characters go? A decade?
Then I started digging. And digging some more, like a miner looking for that one continuous vein, but instead finding nuggets spread out all over his claim. Before I knew it, I was immersed in ancient Hindu mythology; reading online articles with lofty titles like "Avatar Diplomacy, Pen Pals, and the Trans-National Infrastructure"; poring over episode guides to "Max Headroom;" watching "Tron" and "The Lawnmower Man" videos; burying my nose in "cyberpunk" novels (a genre I didn't know existed a week ago); and finding myself strangely attracted to green-haired, virtual newscaster named Ananova.
The deeper I got into it, the more I realized that writing a definitive history of avatars -- beings who reside in virtual reality -- is tantamount to writing a comprehensive history of beings who reside in "real" reality, namely humans. Okay, maybe not quiet as overwhelming, but daunting nonetheless in that there's no clear, concise timeline and lots of gray areas. So I decided to go with milestones. Highlights, if you will, of the progression of avatars. If I've missed any, which I almost certainly have, or skipped one that's particularly significant to you, at the conclusion of this article please close your eyes and imagine an animated, 3-D head with curly hair and a beard mouthing the words: "I'm sorry; it's a big subject." In the meantime, here's what I've come up with…
Avatars appear on Earth
At least the word "avatar" does. Whether or not you buy the rest is up to your spiritual beliefs. "Avatar" derives from the Sanskrit word Avatara, which literally translates as "descent," specifically, a deliberate descent by a god into the land of mortals, usually for the purpose of destroying evil or leading the righteous down the right path. In Hinduism, an avatar is the bodily manifestation of Immortal Beings or "The Supreme Being." For example, Krishna is believed to be the eighth of the ten avatars of Vishnu, the ten incarnations referred to as the Dasavatara.
Yeah, I know, heavy stuff. But it's important because it defines an attitude that still applies to the use of modern-day avatars. Many who use avatars today are literally approaching it from the point of view that their avatar represents their "incarnation" into the internet. Their god-like descent into cyberspace for a specific purpose, be it to chat, convey opinions or other information, or to lead the "righteous" down the right path. Especially if that path is the one that leads to a "righteous" purchase of their product.
Avatars appear in "Cyberpunk" literature
According to Wikipedia: "Cyberpunk literature often revolves around the conflict between hackers, artificial intelligences, and megacorps, tending to be set within a near-future dystopian Earth rather than the 'outer space' locales prevalent at the time of cyberpunk's inception." William Gibson's 1984 "Neuromancer" does just that, introducing the notion of navigating the "Matrix," 1984's version of the internet, in avatarish form. It is considered by many to be the quintessential cyberpunk novel.
But the "bible of avatars for the geek community," at least according to Adi Sideman, CEO and Founder of Oddcast, Inc., a leading creator of avatars and avatar solutions, is Neal Stephenson's 1992 classic, "Snow Crash," another story about hackers negotiating cyberspace. Stephenson uses and defines the word "avatar" in his novel: "The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse (the virtual reality internet)." He even goes on to describe avatar protocol: "Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you're ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you've just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup." In fact, height seems to be the only limiting factor in avatar appearance in Stephenson's world: "Street protocol states that your avatar can't be any taller than you are. This is to prevent people from walking around a mile high."
Even in the future, the vertically challenged can't catch a break.
Avatars appear in movies, games and on television
In 1982's "Tron," Jeff Bridges plays a computer hacker who is split into molecules and literally transported inside his computer. While technically not an avatar in the true sense of the word, he's still a human being who manifests himself in cyberspace.
Three years later, the term "avatar" was used in the personal computer game Ultima IV, where the goal of the game is to become "The Avatar." In later versions of the game, "Avatar" became the player's visual on-screen persona, which he or she could customize in appearance.
Two years later, "Max Headroom," already a show in the U.K., made its series debut on American television. Set "20 minutes into the future," the character Max Headroom is the computer-generated alter-ego avatar of television reporter Edison Carter, and can move through both television and computer networks at will. The show only lasted 14 episodes, but introduced the notion of avatars to millions of American television viewers. Even those who never saw the show got a glimpse of an avatar in action when Headroom became the spokesperson for ill-fated "New" Coke.
Ironically, Headroom wasn't a computer-generated avatar at all, but actor Matt Frewer in heavy makeup and a foam-rubber headpiece. The series may've been "20 minutes into the future," but the technology available to the show was stuck in the eighties, and wasn't advanced enough to computer animate Max.
Later films like 1992's "The Lawnmower Man" dealt with characters that are actual avatars. Jobe, the antagonist of the film, becomes so enamored with who and what he is in virtual reality that he launches a nefarious plot to immerse the real world into cyberspace, where he will rule it. Over a decade later, in films like "The Matrix" trilogy and "Simone," avatar-themed storylines are still being explored, creating dramatic tension when virtual reality collides with reality.
Avatars appear on the internet
It's hard to say when avatars made their debut on the net, although it appears it was almost certainly on an Internet forum or in some MUD (multi user domain) meeting place. But the appearance of one of the most famous early avatars is easy to pinpoint. On April 19, 2000, Ananova, the world's first virtual newscaster, made her debut at a London press conference with these words: "Good morning, I'm Ananova. I've been locked in a room for twelve months with nothing but geeks and techies for company."
Designed to deliver the latest news over the internet and on mobile devices, the 28-year-old, green-haired, British, 3D avatar has a full range of facial expressions and can speak multiple languages. She was designed to be attractive, with a global appeal, and trustworthy and believable, based on the principle that face-to-face communication is one of the oldest and most trusted forms of obtaining information, a theory still adhered today by companies creating or deploying avatars.
"If Max Headroom was the first avatar, he was broadcast, says Adi Sideman, CEO of one such company, Oddcast. "There was nothing dynamic about him. Ananova is the first famous, dynamic avatar. Ananova was built in a way that you could easily update what she says. And she was distributed through the internet, which was a big thing."
Avatars take over the world
Well, not yet, anyway. And certainly not as evil, 3D cyberbots intent on annihilating the human race. But they're making big gains on the internet in ways that make going online more informative, more interesting, more realistic, and just plain more entertaining. Here are a few.
Avatars for instant messaging, chatting and more
The days of text-only IMs with simplistic emoticons are over. Today, you can express yourself, no matter which IM program you use. Whether you choose Yahoo! Avatars, AOL SuperBuddies, or ICQ Devil Factory, there's an avatar to help convey exactly how you feel.
Then there are features like ESPN.com's Voice of the Fan, where fans can create their own avatar to post audiovisual responses to current sports topics on message boards. If they're particularly fond of their response, their created avatar, or both, they can even email it to friends.
Even online dating is getting into the act with avatars. At sites like Friendfinder.com, singles can flirt in the virtual world with FlashChat, which allows chatters to use three-dimensional avatars. Some services are even letting members post avatars instead of photos. So if you're 5' 10" with blue eyes, but you don't want to upload your photo, you can create an avatar representing your physical features and post it instead. Of course, it might freak you out a bit if you thought your date posted an avatar and she shows up looking like a character out of a Pixar movie.
Avatars as marketing spokespersons and hosts
Max Headroom may have paved the way for avatar spokespersons, but marketers have taken things to a new level, putting them to work representing thousands of corporations and smaller clients by greeting customers, walking customers through websites, answering FAQs, giving customized online consultations, delivering messages to fans, giving weather reports, and whole host of other jobs.
Just as the creators of Ananova recognized that people like to get their news from face-to-face interaction, so to do savvy online marketers. Using avatars is a great way to engage potential customers and put them at ease. And it takes full advantage of today's technology, which is finally up to the challenge of supporting what's possible, unlike a few years ago when broadband was being touted as "here," but was actually still arriving.
"On a common sense level, 80 percent of consumers experience multimedia on their computers," says Oddcast's Sideman. "Eighty percent of desktop computers have speakers. Yet millions of businesses are selling silently." And as the technology for creating avatars has gotten more sophisticated, the process of creating them has gotten simpler for users. "The trend is that more and more people are more comfortable interacting with media and creating media. And the tools are becoming so easy that they're almost game-like," says Sideman.
Speaking of gaming...
This one's pretty self-explanatory, since you're basically taking on a role every time you play a computer game. But now you don't even have to take on another identity -- you can be you! Yes, the technology actually exists to upload your own photo onto your character's body. And while this may not mean much to a guy like me (the last game I played was Super Mario, and I don't relish having my face on the body of a short, moustachioed, plumber), it's considered pretty cool stuff for hardcore gamers.
Avatars in training and education
One of the best examples of this is at SPEAK2Me.net, where a beautiful avatar named Lucy helps Chinese-speaking people practice their English. She asks you questions, which you answer by typing and, hopefully, also speaking, for the practice. The result is a real conversation with a virtual conversationalist. And, with practice and persistence, a quicker, better comprehension of the mysterious English language.
Where avatars are headed next is anyone's guess. It seems obvious though that, with faster connections and more sophisticated computer equipment, they're going to keep getting more lifelike and more realistic. But, then again, maybe taking a step back from reality is exactly what makes them so attractive to us. And fun.
Even in the novel "Snow Crash," where the technology exists to look any way one chooses, many of the characters prefer to enter the Metaverse as gorillas or dragons or other creatures. It's their right, just as it is yours. After all, when you become an avatar on the net, you're becoming one from the point-of-view of a god, and a god can be whatever he or she wants.
And so long as everybody's avatar behaves in a responsible, god-like manner once it gets there, everything should be just fine.
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