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Virtualization, The Rise of the Avatar & the Open Sim Project

Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a girl of style and grace, however, unlike Mick, I won’t make you guess my name. I’m Valkyrie Ice, or just Val for short.

I do have another name, but for the twenty five plus years I have been online, starting with my first appearance in the Red Dragon Inn on my very first BBS, Val has been the name every one knows me by. But it’s not just my name which is different online; like many of you, I also have a preferred form, which from IM to Forums to Second Life I have also had since my earliest incarnations in text descriptions on the early MOOs and MUSHs, to my current existence in Second Life. Meet me on SL, and you might raise an eyebrow at the wings, horns, tail, and hooves.

At which point I will likely laugh and say “Why yes, I AM a succubus.”

Odd as it may seem to some of you, my online persona is no different than millions of others. If you traverse the blogs and forums and websites of the World Wide Web, you will find that those who choose to be exactly what they are in real life on the net as well are in a minority. From elves to vampires, klingons to anime cat-girls, cartoon characters to movie stars, the face worn by the majority of netizens is rarely the one they wear in daily life.

Emotiv Brain Computer, Image:

However, this is not the topic of this article, simply a fact of internet life.  My actual desire is to point out exactly what this fact is likely to mean to our world and society as we begin to enter into the age of virtual reality. While this age is still in its infancy, we have arrived at the stage which Kurzwiel describes as “Expensive/Doesn’t work very well” for full audio/visual immersive Virtual Reality.

With the upcoming release of “Project Natal”, the Emotiv Epoc neural headset, a variety of video glasses such as Limus’s see-through glasses, and a computer or console game, basic virtual reality is now a reality. Add in the growing number of Augumented Reality applications available on various smart phones and it should be obvious that the world of the Virtual has arrived. While it will still take a few years to become commonplace, given the speed of current electronics development we can likely expect VR to reach the “Cheap/Works very well” stage in just a few years, and certainly within the next decade.

So what do VR and Avatars have to do with each other you might ask?

A lot more than you may realize, actually.

Avatars are at the heart of the 3d experience. From fighting games to social games to MMORPGs, you possess an onscreen representation of yourself. Whether it’s Farmtown, or World of Warcraft, or Soulcaliber, or Modern Warfare, you interact with the game world through this Avatar. With the Project Natal controller, that Avatar will more or less “be” you, and with the abilities of the Emotiv Epoc to detect facial expressions with fairly high accuracy, that Avatar will not only move like you, but allow anyone seeing you in that Avatar to interact as naturally as they would in person. When you smile, your Avatar will smile, when you move, it will move.

But at present, that Avatar is the creation of a game designer’s imagination. It may mimic you, but it won’t be you.

But what if it could be? What if that onscreen Avatar which mimics your every action could not only imitate you, but look exactly as you wish?


The OpenSim project is looking to allow just that. It’s an open source project to allow the Avatar access to any of a number of shared worlds, so that an Avatar created in, say Second Life, which allows the creation of an almost endlessly customized Avatar, could travel to any virtual world which supports OpenSim protocols. In other words, my appearance in any game could be that of my personally customized succubus Avatar in Second Life. I could use my base appearance in Second Life as the 3d equivalent of my Facebook profile to sign into any virtual world.

But there is far more to it than just 3d games. Watch the video linked into Project Natal. You will note that video phones are included among the various intended uses. We’ve actually had the ability to make video phones for several decades, but they have never become popular for one very simple reason. Human vanity. As good as the idea of video phones sound, one very real draw back to them is that most people don’t really want anyone who calls to see them in their typical appearance around the house. Whether it’s bed head, a need to shave, or a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, we seldom want people to see us at our worst. Yet the advantages of interacting “in person” are extremely obvious.

Avatars are a perfect solution. With the level of control already available for your virtual you, your virtual “clone” could make you appear your best even if you just stepped out of bed to answer a video call. As the technology of photorealistic 3d images and the control interfaces continue to improve, that “perfect you” will eventually be indistinguishable from the real you.

At this point, I think you will realize how inevitably human nature will lead us to Avatars which look “better” than the “real” you. Once you can look “perfect,” it’s only one small step to “idealized” and simply one more step to “customized.”


Game developers know the innate desire humans possess to look idealized. Despite constant complaints by a minority about how “unrealistic” game avatars are, designers understand that people don’t want to look like Joe Schmoe from Idaho, but like Arnie from his Conan days, or like Pamela from her Baywatch days. That’s why Ivy’s cup size gets larger with every new version of Soulcaliber, or World of Warcraft guys are nearly as wide as they are tall.

But, as my opening to this post illustrated, it’s more than that. People want to look like they want to look, and that may not have anything at all to do with how they look in reality. While the recent movie Surrogates revealed that little fact quite well, they utterly failed to illustrate the reality. Second Life is a far closer look at our Avatar future than Surrogates.

Once VR has achieved the ability to create perfect virtual clones that are under our complete control, we’re going to start making those Avatars look the way we wish we could look, complete with Ivy’s oversized attributes, or a Nightelf’s oversized muscles and long ears. We will have our plain vanilla "business" Avatar, and the "real" one that we will spend all our non-business time using, be it in a virtual nightclub socializing or swinging a virtual sword as we wade through a horde of ferocious critters.

If the net of today is any indication, I expect our Virtual future to have a lot more Elves, Vampires, Aliens, and Anime Cat Girls…

And of course, Succubi.


  1. Certainly an interesting story, except for the inevitable letdown when people see the real you. Ever read a personals ad were someone exaggerates their qualifications? Meet the real you. Well that relationship went well.

  2. There’s far more to this issue I plan to discuss in future blog posts. But simply put, having this ability in VR is quite likely to push developments in cosmetic surgery, especially those which use your own stem cells. It’s possible that within a decade of VR, we might actually have the technology in cosmetic biomedicine to actually make someone look as perfect at their “business” avatar.

  3. Actually, many people show the “real them” online — any business email usually includes a signature with the sender’s real name, which is also reflected in the email address. Business is based on the ability to make agreements, which are only possible between real people.

    I would guess that in the future, we would all have at least two avatars, the way we now have at least two email addresses. One would be the business avatar, wearing business-appropriate clothing, owned by the company. When you quit or are fired, all your assets revert back to the firm.

    Then you’d have a personal avatar, for hanging out with friends and family. Instead of a virtual suit, you’d wear the virtual equivalent of jeans. Casual, self-expressive outfits and costumes.

    Finally, many people have anonymous email addresses. They use these to sign up for Websites that they don’t necessarily want to be associated with in real life — either to avoid spam, or to avoid embarrassment.

    We already have these, as some people in Second Life and other virtual world platforms do not tell either their colleagues or their friends how to find them online, keeping their virtual lives completely private. For example, I know some men who are women online, as part of a gender transitioning process — but haven’t come out yet to anyone they know in real life.

    Meanwhile, if you’re interested in using one avatar to visit multiple worlds, check out our “How to Hypergrid” article and a list of hypergrid destinations:


    Maria Korolov
    Editor, Hypergrid Business

    (And yes, this the real me.)

  4. All very good points, which is why I pointed out the difference between the plain vanilla “business” avatar, and the personal one.

    Businesses need the ability to verify many things about an employee, customer, or partner, so the existence of a “professional” Avatar is almost mandatory at first. But that will slowly change as this article on H+ discusses:

    As more virtual people begin running businesses and interacting with reality based businesses, and even as reality based businesses begin moving into virtual space, the use of personalized avatars is likely to increase. This will require new “trust” resolution mechanisms, but as those are already being experimented with, it is likely as Avatars become mainstream, they will evolve as well.

    Eventually, I believe that as we become accustomed to a massively diversified Avatar population, you are likely to begin seeing an acceptance of non standard Avatars in the virtual workplace. It really depends on the business. Corporate “suit and tie” drones will definitely be the last bastion of conformity though.

    And thank you for the Links!

  5. Yeah, I figure the virtual world will only whet people’s appetites for real avatars.

    It’s kind of like the pseudo-scientific term used in The Matrix; “residual self-image”, which has got to be something we actually have. The scientific literature is littered with examples of people who were utterly convinced that their left arm didn’t belong to them, or that they were really a woman and not a man, or that they were the reincarnation of Napoleon. Who’s to say they’re wrong?

    If someone believes that they’re “soul” (or whatever) is really a dragon, it’s only a matter of time before technology allows them to act on that belief. First it will be virtual designs; we can already see that text-based descriptions and drawings are the first step. VR avatars are obviously the next step, but following close on the heels of polygons will be robots and genetic manipulation.

    In my mind, none of that is even interesting it’s so obvious. What is interesting is trying to figure out which direction the majority of society will go. Fiction is full of imaginary worlds in which people and aliens/monsters/mutants coexist, and people are totally capable of empathizing with them (for example, the Prawns in District 9 evoked an emotional response) as long as we can tell there’s another “soul” like us behind the unfamiliar mask. But, it is also clear that people have a deeply ingrained allegiance to “us” and fear of “them.” In the real world, even something as moderate as too many tattoos or piercings can render a person an outcast from the majority of society.

    Sure, a bunch of people will escape the limitations of the real world via an anything-goes VR environment, but ultimately it is work in the real world that will make that environment possible. Will the real world ever accept spill-over between the Id and reality? I’m inclined to think it won’t beyond a small, marginalized percentage (freaks remind us what normal is). I think that, ultimately, facing reality as it is will always be inherently more profitable than engaging with an imaginary construct.

    But that’s just my wimpy imagination working on the idea. I’m sure there are all sorts of possibilities I haven’t thought of yet. Maybe “reality enhancement” goggles will become widespread and will paint avatars over people as we walk down the street and get a cup of coffee, but we can just push the goggles off our head to talk face to face.

  6. Well, in the case of transsexuals, it is a scientific fact that their brains undergo feminization or masculinization in the womb due to genetic factors causing higher levels of estrogen or testosterone during certain stages of pregnancy, but otherwise yes. Not sure if they have even looked yet for an explanation for “furriness” *giggle*

    However, one thing the net is already doing is allowing the formation of extremely large, and increasingly organized, subcultures, such as furries, goths, gamers, etc to be formed. Within these communities, there are vastly different “norms” than those of the broader cultural society. For example, I am considered a “furry” due to the animalistic hooves, wings and horns, not to mention the tail, but within the furry subculture, I’m only borderline a furry since my primary “form” is more humanistic.

    As such, as humanity begins gaining the abilities to make such changes possible, I am quite sure that there will be an enormous amount of pressure to subdivide even further into “tribes” of related self images, just as there is today. So we will have increasingly diverse subdivisions and yes, there might be strife between subcultures, but the ability to freely alter ones appearance will on the whole, I think, corrode the hard and fast divisions. Racism and Genderism will definitely lose their justifications once skin color and gender are freely changeable. In much the same way, I think xenophobia will lose much of it’s force. We shun the abnormal because it IS abnormal, but once the abnormal BECOMES the normal, it’s, well, gonna be normal, no?

    The future I see is just one possibility, though I think it has strong evidence in it’s favor. VR is going to usher it in, and begin making it a reality by popular demand. The hows and whys I plan to explore in later articles, but I think at this point it’s become somewhat inevitable. We’re going to have to come to grips with quite a few of the “demons” of the ID, and find a way to overcome or cope with them long before we ever get to the Singularity.

  7. Some avatars will continue to be banned by idiots with their pseudo-religious beliefs, just as some avatars were banned in Second Life. Liberty and Justice for All the popular people – that’s the American way.

  8. So far as I am aware, no avatars have been banned by Linden Labs. Age verification has been mandated due to controversy over “child” avatars, and many sims do ban them, but that is a sim by sim case, not a Secondlife universal law.

    It is however one of a enormous number of social and cultural “taboos” that will have to be faced, and dealt with over the next few decades. As a strong advocate of true equality for all sentients, my position is one of absolute tolerance, but I am fully aware my stance is by far and away one that is shared by very few people. Genderism, Racism, Culturalism, Nationalism, and xenophobia are social ills that must be cured, and they will indeed be brought into the limelight by VR like they never have been before.

    Too many people seem to think the Singularity is a miracle that will solve all our worlds ills, but it’s not. It’s just a point beyond which predictions cannot as yet be made. Those problems are going to have to be solved a long time before we develop significantly greater than human intelligence. Saying they are beyond us is a cop out, an unwillingness to face the darkness that resides in us all.

    Fortunately, we’re not going to be able to hide from ourselves much longer, and we’re going to have to face our “demons” of the ID whether we want to or not. The Internet and VR will both make that inevitable, and at the same time, give us the means to overcome them without suffering the same fate that befell the Krell.

    Yeah, it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be chaotic. It’s going to suck. We’ll survive it and be better for it.

  9. @Maria: I used to have different emails, websites and SL avatars to deal with different aspects of life (personal, professional, geo/language-related… but now I use just one identity, save a lot of time, and never forget which hat to wear.

    This is also an important trend I think: blurring the separation between personal and professional lives.

  10. why would you propagate this nonsense? you are not an effin r0B0t..
    please stop thinking like one… thank you.

  11. At what point did I start “thinking like a robot” hummm? Please define your use of the term so that I can answer you properly.

    Personally, I simply fail to see how a future in which unlimited personal choice about one’s appearance is “confining” “limited” “rigid” “cookie cutter” or any of the other usual meanings implied by calling someone a robot, so I do confess your question is curiously puzzling.

    Then again, if your intention is to simply deny the future that is most likely to develop based on current trends, do feel free to run from reality as fast as you wish. You’ll merely tire yourself out and it will find you anyway, but you do have free will, and so are perfectly capable of believing what you will, however out of touch with reality it may be.

  12. A one to two liner comment given to be offensive in regards to your whole report on this interesting subject wasn’t worth your time to write a real reply. When somebody tosses in a random insult without backing it up in details, it can be safely ignored.


    Loved your article. Since the early 90’s as a teenager watching “WarGames” on tv I’ve been eagerly waiting until this future finally arrived… And we’re almost there – so close!

    There was a mystery associated with computers back in the 80’s. A strange black box that nobody understood and so their minds ran wild with the possibilities. So much intelligence trying fiercely to squeeze every ounce of processor speed into all kinds of crazy devices to make true virtual reality work. But the technology just wasn’t good enough. They had the will but not the way.

    Now we have the way – more than enough in fact. (Check out the VR920 Goggles – the resolution sucks but everything else… not bad)

    These days computers are mainstream, like any mainstream idea it has stagnated to a certain point. We find ourselves on the opposite end of the spectrum.

    When the dam breaks open and the discovery is made, it will change humanity forever and be the next step in our evolution.

    Imagine how much of our mental energy, physical stress, natural resources, and fighting takes place over the desire for entertainment.

    When virtual reality becomes as real as life itself with touch, taste, and feel… There will be no need for highways or airplanes when you can travel to the tower of Paris instantly and never have to pay a fee or wait in line.

    The poor will have just as many ‘luxuries’ as the rich because it will cost only the tiniest fraction of the physical counter part.
    Hunt deer out of season? How about hunting dinosaurs with a bazooka with your boss instead of playing golf on the weekends.

    15 years ago they said video games was a passing fad. Same with laptops, cellphones, and many others. What will we have in another 20 years? It’s not just likely, it’s unavoidable.

  13. I don’t write replies for the insults to answer the insulter. But any insult is an expression that may be shared by an unknown number of those who read the article. The insulter is unlikely to change their mind, but others who are more open minded may simply need to have the illogic pointed out to be able to see it.

    That insult was a fear response. The reader read my article, and it invoked a fear response, sheer terror at a future that is so radically different, where his premade judgements and hand me down worldviews may no longer function. He may not have understood the article, but he felt threatened by it. His insult was his fear driven lashing out at that threat. But he is not alone in having that fear, so he became a representative voice of all those who share his fear but did not speak out.

    And to be honest, I can understand why he would be afraid. There are some very dark things in the human psyche which are going to be coming out of the dark and hidden places once VR becomes reality. Things which many of us don’t want to have to face, such as our racial stereotypes, and gender roles. Obama has proven how deeply held and deeply hidden racism still runs in America, can you imagine how much chaos there will be once skin color is a matter of choice? Gay marriage illustrates quite well how strongly we cling to gender stereotypes as well, and yet we daily grow closer to the ability to switch sexes at will. They have already turned ovaries into testes, grow penises, and developed a means to use stemcells to print out biological organs. We could feasibly create a fully functional male from a women today.

    For many people, these concepts of race, gender, and sexuality form the very root of their core identity. They can only react with fear to a future which will open up all of these to matters of personal preference. Already today we face many of these issues with the internet, where men playing women still outnumber the actual women playing women, and no-one knows your race unless you broadcast it. VR is going to make it infinitely more visible and less ignorable. And when biotech makes it real instead of virtual, no-one is going to be able to avoid facing their own inner selves.

    And that makes it worth answering his fear with a real reply, to help those who are willing to face their fear instead of letting it rule them.

    And thank you for the rest of your comments. I too have been watching this for decades as it has been occurring. It’s just a matter of seeing the pieces and understanding how they fit together. As another article recently published on h+ reports: they have already begun creating applications for the iPhone to use an Emotiv Epoc for controlling an iPhone. It’s just a proof of concept, but it is a beginning to the full VR rig I see in the not too distant future, where your glasses are wirelessly linked to your primary computing device, and both are controlled by your bci headset. Apple has already developed a between the pixels camera that can be embedded into a display, meaning that eye tracking in real time is easily possible, while the entire outer surface of the lenses could be a camera/lidar mapping your visual field and combining it with the virtual world as it transmits it to the internal display before your eyes. It’s not full immersion VR as envisioned by The Matrix, but it’s good enough tech to get the primary job done as we are developing more advanced technology.

    Glad you enjoyed the article.

  14. When I first worked in IT (before it was even called IT) I remember a startup out of Silicon Valley trying to do, OK actually they did do the first virtual world and I’ve been dreaming of the possibilities ever since. Now granted this was back in the mid-90s and you had to be running a fairly fast machine with a good chunk of RAM to even load this site (over your DSL line) and then you still were very limited as to what you could do and expecially what you could look like. As the years have gone by options have improved and I must say that Second Life has the most robust selection of Avatar accoutrement I’ve seen. With the open sim project I expect the variety and quality of avatars will skyrocket, and no offense to current avatars but I think we are only seeing the tip of the creative iceberg. Within a few years I expect we shall see the rise of a new kind of artform grown out of avatar creation. Already there is a thriving business in avatar construction, but I can imagine a future where real world haute couture and virtual world avatar creation go hand in hand.

    Laser Eye Surgery

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