Altered Ego

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As you step through the massive arched doorway of the Milan.com auditorium, you're hit by a blast of high-intensity electronic music. Hundreds of people are seated around a silver catwalk that hovers above the ground.

A glistening fish with pouting lips floats slowly down the catwalk. Applause erupts as the fish's fins, draped in glowing sequins, begin to quiver in rhythm. After the fish swims off, a female humanoid figure appears on stage, wearing a metal bustier and ultra-high platform shoes, and sashays down the runway. Gasps are heard. The editors of Vogue Online nod in approval.

Welcome to the "avatar" fashion show, brought to you by the dozens of companies in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and elsewhere that are trying to build the kind of cyberspace envisioned in science-fiction novels.

Rather than offering simple text and two-dimensional pictures and graphics, these firms are developing three-dimensional environments where digital representations of people, known as avatars, can chat and mingle and seek out information--and even strut their virtual stuff in fashion shows.

"We would like to see multiuser environments where fashion designers from Tokyo, the U.S. and France walk their own avatar designs up and down the catwalk," says Amy Sagiv, co-founder of Web Design Group, which led a team of 3-D designers, graphic artists and a fashion designer to create an award-winning Internet avatar resembling both a superheroine and Barbarella.

"People watching the online fashion show could even buy the designers' virtual clothes for their own avatars," she says.

A computer character with a sense of style? Live graphics with a human personality? World Wide Web sites populated by semi-sentient beings?

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That certainly isn't how the Internet works today. Exploring the World Wide Web is a most asocial sort of experience: If you're clicking through CNN's Web site, for example, you have no way of knowing if you're the only one reading the news or if 20,000 other people are accessing the page along with you.

But as computing power that was once reserved for Hollywood's special-effects wizards reaches the desktop and virtual reality technology spreads out of arcades and onto the Internet, communal life in cyberspace is beginning. Since its invention in 1994, the Virtual Reality Modeling Language has advanced from allowing three-dimensional graphics to be used on the Internet to enable users to interact with 3-D objects and each other in real time.

The first applications of this technology are, naturally, in areas where the company of other people is most important: multiuser gaming and chat. Graphical two-dimensional chat environments, like The Palace (http://www.thepalace.com) and World Chat (http://www.worlds.net), have been in operation for more than a year.

But with the 3-D capabilities of new computers, numerous companies in Hollywood, San Francisco and elsewhere are designing three-dimensional worlds where users can assume their own customized graphical guises and talk with one another, challenge each other to video games and access information in ways that immerse one much more than text or still-images on a screen do.

"With 3-D environments, you have a feeling of an actual place," says Black Sun Interactive (http://www.blacksun.com) President and CEO Franz Buchenberger, who refers to his firm, which develops technology for multiuser environments, as a "community company." "3-D graphics is the most state-of-the-art way to provide a context for building communities."

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In text-based chat rooms, which have for several years been the cash cow of America Online and other online services, users type in text to be part of online conversations that are, for the most part, unmoderated. Participants can jump in to the modern equivalent of party lines, but they remain only words on a screen.

In the new 3-D equivalent, your avatar can resemble anything from a fish to a robot, and the interactions that occur are more true to the real world. If you want to talk to someone, you literally move your avatar up to face them and physically wave hello. The latest multiuser environments even include voice software, so chat becomes an audio experience. Advanced avatars smile, frown and use body language to convey a message.

In AlphaWorld, from graphical chat pioneers Worlds Inc., registered users can claim a piece of property and build a home from virtual building blocks.

"With that level of realism, lots of interesting dynamics develop," says Rich Abel, president and CEO of Worlds. "Just like in the real world, you get mischief and virtual vandalism sometimes. But we also had a wedding."

It was only a matter of time. A couple met on AlphaWorld, continued their relationship offline, and eventually returned to their virtual courting ground for a cyberspace wedding. The bride was in Texas, while the groom logged in from Washington.

This story had a happy ending, but what if at their first meeting the would-be-bride had turned out to be a 14-year-old boy? After all, who you are in cyberspace is up to you. A number of companies are now developing avatar editors to enable users to design their own cyberspace personas, and switch them easily.

"Actually, I see being able to be somebody else as a big attraction to all of this," says Skuli Mogenson, co-founder and president of Oz Interactive, creators of the Oz Virtual world. "But once this thing gets going, I think people will get together and make rules about what can go on in different communities."

Some communities, Mogenson explains, may require registration and confirmation of someone's identity before they are able to enter, while other more "chaotic areas" may allow anonymity and role playing.

In addition to chat, role-playing games and other video games are also expected to be important applications. Total Entertainment Network (http://www.ten.net), an online gaming service, boasts thousands of subscribers and offers several 3-D games. Meanwhile, Oz, Black Sun and Worlds are developing their own 3-D online games.

Corporate Web sites, where users could examine a product in 3-D and discuss it with customer service avatars, and online shopping sites are also natural applications of the technology.

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There are more than a few problems to be worked out before much of this happens. 3-D worlds require lots of computing power and lots of communications capacity, and the current state of Internet technology limits them to relatively crude and slow-moving graphics. Further, many older-generation PCs cannot handle 3-D worlds, and no 3-D world software is currently available for the Apple Macintosh.

At a recent conference here called "Earth to Avatars," attendees debated an array of issues, such as whether avatars need to look human for users to relate to them. They also worked on a set of standards to determine avatar size limits and other guidelines that will ensure that avatars developed in one 3-D world can work in others.

In the long run, avatars will be able to do a lot more than wear weird clothes. Eli Sagiv of Web Design Group (http://web.actwin.com/WDG) predicts that artificial-intelligence research will soon lead to avatars that are true information agents. These "smart" avatars will be capable of independently visiting other sites, gathering information, collecting news about predetermined subjects and carrying out other chores before reporting back to their owners.

Oz's Mogenson imagines a scenario where a basketball fan's avatar explores basketball-themed chat areas while the user is offline. Because the avatar has spent so much time with the user, it is able to carry on rudimentary conversations as the user would and remember interesting people the user might enjoy talking with. When the user returns to the computer, he immediately has suggestions of places to visit.

Even if that is a vision for tomorrow, avatars and 3-D environments are already changing the way we travel through cyberspace, and who we may meet on our journeys.

Says Abel, "The real breakthrough with all of this is that you don't have to explore the Web alone anymore."

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