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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: emotiv.com

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?

Image: lumus-optical.com

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.”

Image: opensimulator.org

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.

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