An avatar, the image a person uses in a virtual world, is currently bound to the particular world in which it was created. But at the Virtual Worlds Conference 2008 in New York City last week, several companies showcased their efforts to allow people to carry their avatars from one virtual world to another, and even out onto ordinary Web pages. These developments point to a convergence between virtual worlds and social networks.
DAZ 3D, a company based in Draper, UT, that makes software and models for creating 3-D art, recently announced the MogBox, a program that would allow users to design a high-resolution 3-D character and transport it as an avatar to multiple virtual worlds. MogBox is designed to maintain the same look and feel for the character from one location to another, while adjusting for the graphics capabilities and styles of different virtual worlds. This typically means scaling down the high-resolution image, simplifying the textures on the surface of the character, and adjusting the figure’s polygonal building blocks to follow the rules of different digital worlds. Dan Farr, president and cofounder of DAZ 3D, says that a lot of people want to move characters not only between worlds, but out of worlds as well, so that they can illustrate the character in higher resolution than most virtual worlds allow. The MogBox would allow users to take that representation in and out of virtual worlds, he says, and could be used to give people a consistent avatar designed to suit them. Farr says DAZ 3D plans to sell the MogBox to companies that run virtual worlds, as well as to individual users. So far, DAZ 3D has announced support only for Multiverse, which is building up a constellation of virtual worlds made by different developers. Farr says the company expects to add support for other worlds soon.
Focused less on high-resolution graphics and more on the social-networking possibilities of virtual-world technologies, the German company Weblin is providing users with avatars that they can use to surf the Web. When a Weblin user visits a website, his avatar appears at the bottom of the page, where it can interact with the avatars of other Weblin users. Users can dress their avatars, upload new avatar images, and import their avatars from the virtual world, Second Life. The avatar images come directly from Weblin or from sites that integrate Weblin’s technology. Marc Theermann, the North American general manager of Weblin, says that as more users come on board, the company anticipates branding avatars with symbols to show where they originated–so that people with avatars made through a site for racing enthusiasts, for example, would know their common interests when they encountered each other.
Efforts to carry avatars from one world to another or out onto the Web are still plagued by the lack of interoperability among virtual worlds and inconsistent standards for graphics. Though more than 20 companies announced last fall their intention to develop standards for virtual worlds, those standards are yet to come. Patrick O’Shaughnessey, vice president of software development for the Electric Sheep Company, which makes content for virtual worlds and works with many different platforms, said at a panel during the conference that the interoperability forum is still “talking about how they want to talk about” standards. In the meantime, companies have gone ahead with their own efforts to connect worlds, supporting standards to whatever degree they now exist (for example, DAZ 3D supports COLLADA and FBX, two popular formats for 3-D images).
Robin Harper, vice president of marketing and community development for Linden Lab, maker of Second Life, says that one problem with handling avatars is that people have different needs for their online identities. “In an enterprise situation, you are most likely to want to use your real name, like people on Facebook use their real names,” she says. Harper says that virtual worlds can serve a similar role to that of social networks in business, with the added benefit that they make it easy to interact in real time, instead of limiting users to asynchronous communications. When people use avatars for business purposes, they often want to be easily recognized through their avatars and want to keep those avatars in place wherever they go.
However, Harper notes, not everyone wants that kind of locked-in identity. Though she gets many requests from people wanting to use their real names in Second Life (which makes users choose from a list of possible last names), she says she also hears from people who are very attached to the anonymity their avatar allows. Harper says virtual-world providers and users will need to think more about these questions as more users carry real-world identities into their avatars, or try to bring their avatars out into the larger Web.