Ever wondered how some Mii creators make some amazing looking avatars that resemble celebrities? I’d assumed there was an option to buy different customisations on top of the default options, but I was wrong. All it takes is the default set with a lot of imagination.
There’s a great story over on Maxping about Evolver, a now web-based avatar creation tool from Darwin Dimensions. There’s no shortage of tools like this but where Evolver shows particular promise is in regards to being able to share avatar creations across a range of platforms and media.
The majority of partners are yet to be announced but the beta already offers sharing with the following virtual worlds: Friends Hang Out, 3Dxplorer, Qwaq, WorldViz, Vast Park, Torque Game, Wonderland and Active World. The detail of the avatars isn’t to be sneezed at either – as the public gallery shows
There’s also a service to clone your real-world face onto an Evolver avatar, something I’ve never really seen the point of doing but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t popular. All up, Evolver has promise – a Linden Lab takeover target perhaps? You can also read a short interview with Darwin Dimensions’ CEO here.
Most of the things which touch our daily lives are incorporeal. It’s been that way for so long that we’ve long since forgotten what it is like for it to be any other way, yet we’re suspicious when new incorporeal things intrude on our lives.
For many of us, money has been incorporeal for much of our lives. For your kids, probably for their whole lives. I rarely actually even carry any. A small plastic card that acts as an authentication token for a bunch of numbers in a database somewhere acts as my financial instrument, and buys me groceries and new slippers. Seriously, when did you last get your money in a small yellow envelope. I know I used to, but I can’t remember when that was, it was so long ago.
Paper money was so contentious in the USA at one time that it required a federal law to compel people to accept it as legal tender. Later that was overturned, but was again reinstated. We didn’t virtualise the value of currency very easily or very quickly.
So, the money I use to get groceries largely exists as the movement of numbers between databases, which is kind of fitting, since that money starts out as Linden Dollars, which Rolling Stone calls “fake money”.
Colour me failing-to-see-the-distinction, there. I perform services, I get paid, I buy groceries and pay taxes — although when I turn my computer on to do it, apparently I suddenly become a fake person, as WSJ tech writer Walt Mossberg would have it.
As for virtual goods (or fake goods as some would call them), what indeed are the uses of things that cost money that you can only look at?
Good question. Ask the Art industry for the last couple of thousand years. Or walk out onto the footpath and look up and down at all those yards and gardens that we spend so much money keeping up so that we can… err.. look at them.
The law happily accepts incorporeal things as property, indistinguishable under the law from things you can stub your toe on, or trip over in the dark. With virtual goods and property, the only real case-distinctions are about who actually has ownership over a given thing, which can be a tangle of contracts and End-User-License-Agreements.
As a culture we’ve taken to software, MP3s and podcasts and so on, but show us an avatar and a virtual pair of heels, and we suddenly get all nervous and standoffish. Why do you think that is?
“Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. … You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become?” — Terry Pratchett, Hogfather (1996)
“… their avatars were less coy. While flesh and blood reporters and photographers banged on the door of the couple’s homes, virtual ones were trying to doorstep …”
” … one of the South West staff who “controlled” Meggy, ” … our characters started chatting and it was different. … Amy’s character was much more confident in the game than she was in real life.””
” … his character got the run around from Barmy because he was a novice in the ways of Second Life, … “It was difficult sometimes because there was a blurring between reality and Second Life.”
All quotes above from How South West News got its divorce scoop in Second Life.
The above article is from the Guardian, Friday November 14 2008. Giving the impression that ‘characters’ (perhaps they mean ‘avatars’) have independent action, and perhaps a life separate from their creators, this article demonstrates a common fallacious idea. An avatar, whether as a component of a gaming or non-gaming digital environment, cannot be said to be controlled by a person, nor can it have its own actions.
An avatar, in digital terms, is a visual representation of the person behind the screen. As the person behind the screen, you do not have direct access to you avatar – as many a person has bemoaned on the Second Life development lists, there is no way even for programmers without access to the servers for a digital environment to move or otherwise interact with an avatar.
Instead, what we have access to is an ‘agent’. The agent – defined either as an entity capable of action, or as something that acts on behalf of a[nother] person – is the thing that acts on your behalf. When you create input through your keyboard or mouse, those instructions run through your agent to the server. When ‘you’ move, you are changing the location stored in your agent. Effectively, the agent is an invisible point in a virtual space which moves by proxy. The avatar then, is a visual representation of changes you have made, or actions you have taken, through your agent.
In a digital environment, the things you can typically do involve moving, communicating, and interacting with or editing objects. In each case, your input is sent from your input device to the servers via your client and through your agent. Some manner of response to that input is then sent back to your client. This response might lead to text being displayed on your screen, or you hearing some audio output, if you are communicating; if you moved, the response will involve visual output – you will see your avatar ‘walking’ or perhaps ‘flying’, moving with respect to the background. If you are interacting with an object, you may receive visual output or text-based output, depending on the type of interaction. In each case, the agent acts on your behalf – moves, communicates, or interacts – and you then receive a response based on your actions.
Your agent is not the only entity that can cause a reaction in your avatar. If in Second Life another person starts to type, your avatar will turn their head in the direction of their agent, independently of any action you might take, unless your camera is locked. The servers may also cause your avatar to react. You can send an action request to your avatar through your agent to allow your avatar to be animated, but your agent is still doing the work on your behalf. Your ability to get an avatar to do anything that does not reflect an action you took at the input level, then passed through an agent, is very, very limited indeed.
Finally, an avatar most certainly has no life of its own. It cannot do anything the agent has not done, since it is a visual representation of what the agent is doing. Avatars do not communicate; people communicate through their agents. A somewhat inadequate analogy might be this: think of your computer hardware as if it were your phone – would you say that phones talk to each other? Think of your agent as a person taking dictation and typing out Teletext for a deaf person – would you say that you are communicating with the person you called, or the person taking dictation? Think of your avatar as an annoying street mime, following you and reacting only to your actions. Better yet, think of your avatar as a shadow thrown against a cave wall – would you say that the shadows had a life of their own, and could wander off and communicate with other shadows?
It may seem like a purely semantic issue – does it matter whether avatars can do these things or not, or which terms are used to couch these ideas? Well, it matters very much to the people who design and code digital environments and it matters in legal terms. It should be of importance to you, whether you are a user of these environments, or a reporter of these environments, or an outsider. Why? It means that many of these amazing and outlandish stories never even become an issue, and that people have a better understanding about how these things work, legally and socially. There’s less cause for confusion and less wiggle room for those gaming the system.
Wouldn’t you rather know where you stood on this issue concerning digital environments?