In computing, an avatar is the graphical representation of the user or the user's alter ego or character. It may take either a three-dimensional form, as in games or virtual worlds, or a two-dimensional form as an icon in Internet forums and other online communities. Avatar images have also been referred to as "picons" (personal icons) in the past, though the usage of this term is uncommon now. It can also refer to a text construct found on early systems such as MUDs. The term "avatar" can also refer to the personality connected with the screen name, or handle, of an Internet user. Common avatars may be Internet memes.
The word avatar originates in Hinduism, where it stands for the "descent" of a deity in a terrestrial form (deities in India are popularly thought to be formless and capable of manifesting themselves in any form).
The use of the term avatar for the on-screen representation of the user was coined in 1985 by Richard Garriott for the computer game Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. In this game, Garriott desired the player's character to be his earth self manifested into the virtual world. Garriott did this because he wanted the real player to be responsible for the character's in game actions due to the ethical parables he designed into the story. Only if you were playing "yourself" Garriott felt, could you be judged based on your character's actions. Because of its ethically-nuanced, story-driven approach, he took the Hindu word associated with a deity's manifestation on earth in physical form, and applied it to a player manifesting in the game world.
In Norman Spinrad's novel Songs from the Stars (1980), the term avatar is used in a description of a computer generated virtual experience. In the story, humans receive messages from an alien galactic network that wishes to share knowledge and experience with other advanced civilizations through "songs". The humans build a "galactic receiver" that describes itself:
The galactic receiver is programmed to derive species specific full sensory input data from standard galactic meaning code equations. By controlling your sensorium input along species specific parameters galactic songs astral back-project you into approximation of total involvement in artistically recreated broadcast realities...
From the last page of the chapter titled "The Galactic Way" in a description of an experience that is being relayed via the galactic receiver to the main characters:
You stand in a throng of multifleshed being, mind avatared in all its matter, on a broad avenue winding through a city of blue trees with bright red foliage and living buildings growing from the soil in a multitude of forms.
The use of avatar to mean online virtual bodies was popularised by Neal Stephenson in his cyberpunk novel Snow Crash (1992). In Snow Crash, the term avatar was used to describe the virtual simulation of the human form in the Metaverse, a fictional virtual-reality application on the Internet. Social status within the Metaverse was often based on the quality of a user's avatar, as a highly detailed avatar showed that the user was a skilled hacker and programmer while the less talented would buy off-the-shelf models in the same manner a beginner would today. Stephenson wrote in the "Acknowledgments" to Snow Crash:
The idea of a "virtual reality" such as the Metaverse is by now widespread in the computer-graphics community and is being used in a number of different ways. The particular vision of the Metaverse as expressed in this novel originated from idle discussion between me and Jaime (Captain Bandwidth) Taaffe...The words avatar (in the sense used here) and Metaverse are my inventions, which I came up with when I decided that existing words (such as virtual reality) were simply too awkward to use...after the first publication of Snow Crash, I learned that the term avatar has actually been in use for a number of years as part of a virtual reality system called Habitat...in addition to avatars, Habitat includes many of the basic features of the Metaverse as described in this book.
Despite the widespread use of avatars, it is unknown which Internet forums were the first to use them; the earliest forums did not include avatars as a default feature, and they were included in unofficial "hacks" before eventually being made standard. Avatars on Internet forums serve the purpose of representing users and their actions, personalizing their contributions to the forum, and may represent different parts of their persona, beliefs, interests or social status in the forum.
The traditional avatar system used on most Internet forums is a small (80x80 to 100x100 pixels, for example) square-shaped area close to the user's forum post, where the avatar is placed in order for other users to easily identify who has written the post without having to read their username. Some forums allow the user to upload an avatar image that may have been designed by the user or acquired from elsewhere. Other forums allow the user to select an avatar from a preset list or use an auto-discovery algorithm to extract one from the user's homepage.
Some avatars are animated, consisting of a sequence of multiple images played repeatedly. In such animated avatars, the number of images as well as the time in which they are replayed vary considerably.
Other avatar systems exist, such as on Gaia Online, WeeWorld, Frenzoo or Meez, where a pixelized representation of a person or creature is used, which can then be customized to the user's wishes. There are also avatar systems (e.g. Trutoon) where a representation is created using a person's face with customized characters and backgrounds.
Another avatar-based system is one wherein an image is automatically generated based on the identity of the poster. Identicons are formed as visually distinct geometric images derived from a digest hash of the poster's IP address. In this way, a particular anonymous user can be uniquely identified from session to session without the need for registration or authentication. In the cases where registration has occurred, the identicon serves as a means to associate a particular user with a particular geometric representation. If an account is compromised, a dissimilar identicon will be formed as the attacker is posting from an unfamiliar IP address.
In 1994, Virtual Places offered VOIP capabilities which were later abandoned for lack of bandwidth.
In 1995, KeepTalking, a product of UNET2 Corporation, was one of the first companies to implement an avatar system into their web chat software.
In 1997, Cybertown first introduced three dimensional avatars to internet chat.
Instant messaging programs
America Online introduced instant messaging for its membership in 1996 and included a limited number of "buddy icons," picking up on the avatar idea from PC games. When AOL later introduced the free version of its messenger, AIM, for use by anyone on the Internet, the number of icons offered grew to be more than 1,000 and the use of them grew exponentially, becoming a hallmark feature of instant messaging. In 2002, AOL introduced "Super Buddies," 3D animated icons that talked to users as they typed messages and read messages. The term Avatar began to replace the moniker of "buddy icon" as 3D customizable icons became known to its users from the mainstream popularity of PC Games. Yahoo's instant messenger was the first to adopt the term "avatar" for its icons. Today, many other instant-messaging services support the use of avatars.
Instant messaging avatars are usually very small. AIM icons, have been as small as 16x16 pixels but are used more commonly at the 48x48 pixels size, although many icons can be found online that typically measure anywhere from 50x50 pixels to 100x100 pixels in size.
The latest use of avatars in instant messaging is dominated by dynamic avatars. The user chooses an avatar that represents him while chatting and, through the use of text to speech technology, enables the avatar to talk the text being used at the chat window. Another form of use for this kind of avatar is for video chats/calls. Some services, such as Skype (through some external plugins) allow users to use talking avatars during video calls, replacing the image from the user's camera with an animated, talking avatar.
American Online began to use AIM buddy icons as a marketing tool, known as "Expressions," for music, movies, and computer games in 2001. Since then many advertising firms have as well.
Avatars can be used as virtual embodiments of embodied agents, which are driven more or less by artificial intelligence rather than real people. Automated online assistants are examples of avatars used in this way.
Such avatars are used by organizations as a part of automated customer services in order to interact with consumers and users of services. This can avail for enterprises to reduce their operating and training cost. A major underlying technology to such systems is natural language processing. Some of these avatars are commonly known as "bots". Famous examples include Ikea's Anna, an avatar designed to guide users around the Ikea website.
Such avatars can also be powered by a digital conversation which provides a little more structure than those using NLP, offering the user options and clearly defined paths to an outcome. This kind of avatar is known as a Structured Language Processing or SLP Avatar.
Both types of avatar provide a cost effective and efficient way of engaging with consumers.
Avatars in video games are the player's representation in the game world. The first video games to include a representation of the player were Basketball (1974) which represented players as humans, and Maze War (1974) which represented players as eyeballs.
In some games, the player's representation is fixed, however many games offer a basic character model, or template, and then allow customization of the physical features as the player sees fit. For example, Carl Johnson, the avatar from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, can be dressed in a wide range of clothing, can be given tattoos and haircuts, and can even body build or become obese depending upon player actions. One video game in which the avatar and player are two separate entities is the game Perspective, where the player controls both themself in a 3-dimensional world and the avatar in a 2-dimensional world.
Aside from an avatar's physical appearance, its dialogue, particularly in cut scenes, may also reveal something of its character. A good example is the crude, action hero stereotype, Duke Nukem. Other avatars, such as Gordon Freeman from Half-Life, who never speaks at all, reveal very little of themselves (the original game never showed the player what he looked like without the use of a console command for third-person view).
Massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) are the source of the most varied and sophisticated avatars. Customization levels differ between games; For example, in EVE Online, players construct a wholly customized portrait, using a software that allows for several changes to facial structure as well as preset hairstyles, skin tones, etc. However, these portraits appear only in in-game chats and static information view of other players. Usually, all players appear in gigantic spacecraft that give no view of their pilot, unlike in most other RPGs. Alternatively, City of Heroes offers one of the most detailed and comprehensive in-game avatar creation processes, allowing players to construct anything from traditional superheroes to aliens, medieval knights, monsters, robots, and many more. Robbie Cooper's 2007 book "Alter Ego, Avatars and their creators" pairs photographs of players of a variety of MMO's with images of their in-game avatars and profiles; recording the player's motivations and intentions in designing and using their avatars. The survey reveals wide variation in the ways in which players of MMO's use avatars. Felicia Day, creator and star of The Guild web series, created a song called "(Do You Wanna Date My) Avatar" which satirizes avatars and virtual dating.
Nintendo's Wii console allows for the creation of avatars called "Miis" that take the form of stylized, cartoonish people and can be used in some games as avatars for players, as in Wii Sports. In some games, the ability to use a Mii as an avatar must be unlocked, such as in Mario Kart Wii.
On November 19, 2008, Microsoft released an Xbox 360 Dashboard update which featured the introduction of Avatars as part of the console's New Xbox Experience. With the update installed users can personalize the look of their Avatars by choosing from a range of clothing and facial features. On August 11, 2009, the NXE Avatar program was updated with the inclusion of an Avatar Marketplace feature that allows users to purchase additional product and game branded clothing, jewelry, full body suits, and animated props. On initial release of the update, game branded content included items from Gears of War 2, BioShock 2, Star Wars, Fable II, Halo 3, and The Secret of Monkey Island special edition. The Xbox LIVE Avatar Marketplace is updated weekly with new items.
Non-gaming online worlds
Avatars in non-gaming online worlds are used as two- or three-dimensional human or fantastic representations of a person's inworld self. Such representations are a tool which facilitates the exploration of the virtual universe, or acts as a focal point in conversations with other users, and can be customized by the user. Usually, the purpose and appeal of such universes is to provide a large enhancement to common online conversation capabilities, and to allow the user to peacefully develop a portion of a non-gaming universe without being forced to strive towards a pre-defined goal.
In non-gaming universes, the criteria avatars have to fulfill in order to become useful can depend to a great extent on the age of potential users. Research suggests that younger users of virtual communities put great emphasis on fun and entertainment aspects of avatars. They are also interested in the simple ease of use of avatars, and their ability to retain the user’s anonymity. Meanwhile, older users pay great importance to an avatar’s ability to reflect their own appearance, identity, and personality . Most older users also want to be able to use an avatar’s expressive functionalities (such as showing emotions), and are prepared to learn new ways of navigation to do it. Surprisingly, some evidence suggests that avatars that are more anthropomorphic are perceived to be less credible and likeable than images that are less anthropomorphic. Social scientists at Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab examine the implications, possibilities, and transformed social interaction that occur when people interact via avatars.
Avatar-based non-gaming universes are usually populated by age groups whose requirements concerning avatars are fulfilled. For example, most users of Habbo Hotel, Ty Girlz and Webkinz are aged 10 to 15 years, while users of Gaia Online and WeeWorld are 13 to 18. The reason may well be the properties and functionalities of the avatars of these virtual communities, as well as what the games are able to give to their players. In contrast, There and Kaneva Game Platform target users aged 22 to 49 and their avatars allow for a wide range of social interactions, including the expression of emotions: laughing, waving, blowing kisses, and rude gestures. The Palace, most of whose users seem to be older, allows users to use their own images as avatars. This turns the avatar into a direct reflection of users' real-life appearance, as desired by older users.
Lisa Nakamura has suggested that customizable avatars in non-gaming worlds tend to be biased towards lighter skin colors and against darker skin colors, especially in those of the male gender. In Second Life avatars are created by residents and take any form, and range from lifelike humans to robots, animals, plants and mythical creatures. Avatar customization is one of the most important entertainment aspects in non gaming virtual worlds, such as Second Life, IMVU, and Active Worlds. Many virtual worlds are providing users with tools to customize their representations, allowing them to change shapes, hair, skins and also genre. Moreover, there is a growing secondary industry devoted to the creations of products and items for the avatars. Some companies have also launched social networks and other websites for avatars such as Koinup, Myrl, and Avatars United.
Early examples of customizable avatars include multi-user systems, including MUDs. Most forums use a small JPEG, Portable Network Graphics (PNG) or Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) file to display a small image next to posts from a user. Gaia Online has a customizable avatar where users can dress it up as desired. Users may earn credits for completing sponsored surveys or certain tasks to purchase items and upgrades to customize their avatar. Linden Lab's Second Life creates a virtual world in which avatars, homes, decorations, buildings and land are for sale. Less-common items may be designed to appear better than common items, and an experienced player may be identified from a group of new characters before in-game statistics are seen. Sherry Turkle described a middle-aged man who played an aggressive, confrontational female character in his online communities, displaying personality traits he was embarrassed to display in the offline world. Research by Nick Yee of the Daedelus Project demonstrates that an avatar may differ considerably from a player's offline identity, based on gender. However, most players will make an avatar that is (proportionately) equal to their height (or slightly taller). Sherry Turkle has observed that some players seek an emotional connection they cannot establish in the real world. She described a case in which a man with a serious heart condition preventing him from ordinary socializing found acceptance and friendship through his online identity. Others have pointed out similar findings in those with mental disorders making social interaction difficult, such as those with autism or similar disabilities.
Avatars have become an area of study in the world of academics. The emergence of online avatars have profound implications for domains of scholarly research such as technoself studies, which is concerned with all aspects of human identity in a technological society and also the social avatar and its effects upon the psyche. Paul Hemp has written an article for the Harvard Business Review, where he analyses the effects of avatars on real-world business. He focuses on the game "Second Life", and shows that the creators of virtual avatars are willing to spend real money to purchase goods marketed solely to their virtual selves.
The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication published a study of the reactions to certain types of avatars by a sample group of human users. The results showed that users commonly chose avatars which were humanoid and matched their gender. The conclusion was that in order to make users feel more "at home" in their avatars, designers should maximise the custimizability of visual criteria common to humans, such as skin and hair color, gender, hair styles and height.
Researchers at York University studied whether avatars reflected a user's real-life personality. Student test groups were able to infer upon extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, but could not infer upon openness and conscientiousness.
Another use of the avatar has emerged with the widespread use of Social Media platforms. There is a practice in Social Media sites, uploading Avatars in place of real profile image. Profile picture is a distinct graphics that represent the identity of profile holder. It is usually the portrait of an individual, logo of an organization, organizational building or distinctive character of book, cover page etc. Using avatars as profile pictures can increase users' perceived level of social presence which in turn fosters reciprocity and sharing behavior in online environments.
In popular culture
Cartoons and stories sometimes have a character based on their creator, either a fictionalised version (e.g. the Matt Groening character in some episodes of The Simpsons) or an entirely fictional character (e.g. Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series has been said by J. K. Rowling to be based upon herself). Such characters are sometimes known as "author avatars".
As avatars grow in use, services to centralize design, management, and transportation of digital avatars start to appear. They can offer to deployed in virtual worlds, online games, social networks, video clips, greeting cards, and mobile apps, as well as professional animation and pre-visualization projects. For example, Evolver (3D Avatar Web Portal) seems to be the first solution to bring together complex 3D modeling, consumer ease of use, and fully interoperable avatars.
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- NECA Project
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