Avatar (computing)

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An avatar is a computer user's representation of himself/herself or alter ego, whether in the form of a three-dimensional model used in computer games,[1] a two-dimensional icon (picture) or a one-dimensional username used on Internet forums and other communities,[2][3] or a text construct found on early systems such as MUDs. It is an object representing the user. The term "avatar" can also refer to the personality connected with the screen name, or handle, of an Internet user.[4] This sense of the word was coined by Neal Stephenson[5] in 1992's Snow Crash who co-opted it from the Sanskrit word avatāra which is a concept similar to that of incarnation.

Computer games

The use of the term "avatar" for the on-screen representation of the user was coined in 1985 by Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer in designing Lucasfilm's online role-playing game Habitat.[6] (The computer game Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar was released in 1985, but does not use the word in this sense, only in its religious sense; the player's in-game final objective is to become an "Avatar" or master of the Eight Virtues. Later games in the Ultima series use the term in the same sense as Habitat and introduce Habitat-style customization of avatars.) Another early use of the term was in the pen and paper role-playing game Shadowrun (1989)[citation needed]

William Gibson

Although William Gibson's notion of cyberspace as a consensual virtual reality hallucination representing data as a 3D matrix is not remotely how users access or perceive the Internet, his cyberpunk novel Count Zero (1986) described in detail a character's representation socializing in an online world:

A square of cyberspace directly in front of him flipped sickeningly and he found himself in a pale blue graphic that seemed to represent a very spacious apartment, low shapes of furniture sketched in hair-fine lines of blue neon. A woman stood in front of him, a sort of glowing cartoon squiggle of a woman, the face a brown smudge. "I'm Slide," the figure said, hands on its hips ... [She] gestured, a window suddenly snapping into existence behind her.</p>

"Right," Bobby said. "What is this? I mean, if you could sort of explain." He still couldn't move. The "window" showed a blue-gray video view of palm trees and old buildings.

... "Hey, man, I paid a designer an arm and a leg to punch this up for me. This is my space, my construct. This is L.A., boy. People here don't do anything without jacking. This is where I entertain!"

Neal Stephenson

The use of Avatar to mean online virtual bodies was popularised by Neal Stephenson in his cyberpunk novel Snow Crash (1992).[7] In Snow Crash, the term Avatar was used to describe the virtual simulation of the human form in the Metaverse, a fictional virtual-reality application on the Internet. Social status within the Metaverse was often based on the quality of a user's avatar, as a highly detailed avatar showed that the user was a skilled hacker and programmer while the less talented would buy off-the-shelf models in the same manner a beginner would today. Stephenson wrote in the "Acknowledgments" to Snow Crash:

"The idea of a 'virtual reality' such as the Metaverse is by now widespread in the computer-graphics community and is being used in a number of different ways. The particular vision of the Metaverse as expressed in this novel originated from idle discussion between me and Jaime (Captain Bandwidth)Taffe...The words 'avatar' (in the sense used here) and 'Metaverse' are my inventions, which I came up with when I decided that existing words (such as 'virtual reality') were simply too awkward to use...after the first publication of 'Snow Crash' I learned that the term 'avatar' has actually been in use for a number of years as part of a virtual reality system called 'Habitat'...in addition to avatars, Habitat includes many of the basic features of the Metaverse as described in this book,"[8]

On Internet forums

Example of an avatar as used on Internet forums. Notable features are the small (100x100px) size, text and a border.

Despite the widespread use of avatars, it is unknown which Internet forums were the first to use them; the earliest forums did not include avatars as a default feature, and they were included in unofficial "hacks" before eventually being made standard. Avatars on Internet forums serve the purpose of representing users and their actions, personalizing their contributions to the forum, and may represent different parts of their persona, beliefs, interests or social status in the forum.

The traditional avatar system used on most Internet forums is a small (80x80 to 100x100 pixels, for example) square-shaped area close to the user's forum post, where the avatar is placed in order for other users to easily identify who has written the post without having to read their username. Some forums allow the user to upload an avatar image that may have been designed by the user or acquired from elsewhere. Other forums allow the user to select an avatar from a preset list or use an auto-discovery algorithm to extract one from the user's homepage.

Some avatars are animated, consisting of a sequence of multiple images played repeatedly. In such animated avatars, the number of images as well as the time in which they are replayed vary considerably.[9]

Other avatar systems exist, such as on Gaia Online, WeeWorld, Frenzoo or Meez, where a pixelized representation of a person or creature is used, which can then be customized to the user's wishes. There are also avatar systems (e.g. Trutoon) where a representation is created using a person's face with customized characters and backgrounds.

Another avatar based system is one wherein an image is automatically generated based on the identity of the poster. Identicons are formed as visually distinct geometric images derived from a digest hash of the poster's IP address. In this way, a particular anonymous user can be uniquely identified from session to session without the need for registration or authentication. In the cases where registration has occurred, the identicon serves as a means to associate a particular user with a particular geometric representation. If an account is compromised, a dissimilar identicon will be formed as the attacker is posting from an unfamiliar IP address.

In Internet chat

Flat GIF based avatars were introduced by such programs as Virtual Places as early as 1994 along with VOIP capabilities which were later abandoned for lack of bandwidth.

In 1995, KeepTalking, a product of UNET2 Corporation, was one of the first companies to implement an avatar system into their web chat software.

In 1995, Cybertown first introduced three dimensional avatars to internet chat.[citation needed]

In 1996 Microsoft Comic Chat, an IRC client that used cartoon avatars for chatting, was released.

In instant-messaging programs

America Online invented instant messaging for its membership in 1996 and introduced a limited number of "buddy icons," picking up on the avatar idea from PC games.[10] When AOL later introduced the free version of its messenger, AIM, for use by anyone on the Internet, the number of icons offered grew to be more than 1,000 and the use of them grew exponentially, becoming a hallmark feature of instant messaging.[11] In 2002, AOL introduced "Super Buddies," 3D animated icons that talked to users as they typed messages and read messages.[12] The term Avatar began to replace the moniker of "buddy icon" as 3D customizable icons became known to its users from the mainstream popularity of PC Games. Yahoo's instant messenger was the first to adopt the term "avatar" for its icons.[13] Today, many other popular instant-messaging services support the use of avatars, including Windows Live Messenger, and services using the XMPP protocol such as Google Talk, LJ Talk, and Gizmo5.

Instant messaging avatars are usually very small. AIM icons, have been as small as 16x16 pixels but used more commonly at the 48x48 pixels size,[14] although many icons can be found online that typically measure anywhere from 50x50 pixels to 100x100 pixels in size. A wide variety of these imaged avatars can be found on web sites and popular eGroups such as Yahoo! Groups.

The latest use of avatars in instant messaging is dominated by dynamic avatars. The user chooses an avatar that represents him while chatting and, through the use of text to speech technology, enables the avatar to talk the text being used at the chat window. Another form of use for this kind of avatar is for video chats/calls. Some services, such as Skype (through some external plugins) allow users to use talking avatars during video calls, replacing the image from the user's camera with an animated, talking avatar.[15][16]

American Online began to use AIM buddy icons as a marketing tool, known as "Expressions," for music, movies and computer games in 2001. Since then many advertising firms have as well[17].[18]

In blogs

Although blog comment pages can sometimes act like Internet forums, there is no single way to provide avatar support on blogs. One solution is to link to an image file controlled by the user. Another solution is to use a service like Gravatar and resolve the user avatar from his/her mail address.

In artificial intelligence

Avatars are also used by organizations as a way of interacting with consumers. Some of these avatars are commonly known as "bots" and are powered by Natural language processing. Famous examples include Ikea's Anna, an avatar designed to guide you around the Ikea website.

Such Avatars can also be powered by a Digital conversation which provides a little more structure than those using NLP, offering the user options and clearly defined paths to an outcome. This kind of Avatar is known as a Structured Language Processing or SLP Avatar.

Both types of Avatar provide a cost effective and efficient way of engaging with consumers.

In games

File:Xbox NXE avatar.png
Game consoles such as the Wii, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (shown here) feature universal animated avatars.

Avatars in video games are essentially the player's physical representation in the game world. In most games, the player's representation is fixed, however increasingly games offer a basic character model, or template, and then allow customization of the physical features as the player sees fit. For example, Carl Johnson, the avatar from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, can be dressed in a wide range of clothing, can be given tattoos and haircuts, and can even body build or become obese depending upon player actions.[19]

Aside from an avatar's physical appearance, its dialogue, particularly in cut scenes, may also reveal something of its character. A good example is the crude, action hero stereotype, Duke Nukem.[20] Other avatars, such as Gordon Freeman from Half-Life, who never speaks at all, reveal very little of themselves (the original game never showed the player what he looked like without the use of a console command for third-person view).

Massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) are the source of the most varied and sophisticated avatars. Customization levels differ between games; For example in EVE Online, players construct a wholly customized portrait, using a software that allows for several changes to facial structure as well as preset hairstyles, skin tones, etc.[9]. However, these portraits appear only in in-game chats and static information view of other players. Usually, all players appear in gigantic spacecraft that give no view of their pilot, unlike in most other RPGs. Felicia Day, creator and star of The Guild web series, created a song called (Do You Wanna Date My) Avatar which satirizes avatars and virtual dating.

Alternatively, City of Heroes offers one of the most detailed and comprehensive in-game avatar creation processes, allowing players to construct anything from traditional superheroes to aliens, medieval knights, monsters, robots and many more.

Nintendo's Wii console allows for the creation of avatars called "Miis" that take the form of stylized, cartoonish people and can be used in some games as avatars for players, as in Wii Sports. In some games, the ability to use a Mii as an avatar must be unlocked, such as in Mario Kart Wii.

On November 19, 2008 Microsoft released an Xbox 360 Dashboard update which featured the introduction of Avatars as part of the console's New Xbox Experience. With the update installed users can personalize the look of their Avatars by choosing from a range of clothing and facial features. On August 11, 2009 the NXE Avatar program was updated with the inclusion of an Avatar Marketplace feature that allows users to purchase additional product and game branded clothing, jewelry, full body suits, and animated props.[21] On initial release of the update, game branded content included items from Gears of War 2, BioShock 2, Star Wars, Fable II, Halo 3, and The Secret of Monkey Island special edition. The Xbox LIVE Avatar Marketplace is updated weekly with new items.[22]

PlayStation Home for Sony's PlayStation 3 console also features the use of avatars, but with a more realistic style than Nintendo's Miis or Microsoft's Avatars.

In non-gaming online worlds

Avatars in non-gaming online worlds are used as two-dimensional or three-dimensional human or fantastic representations of a person's self. Such representations can explore the virtual universe they are in using their avatar, add to it, or conduct conversations with other users, and can be customized by the user. Usually, the purpose and appeal of such universes is to provide a large enhancement to common online conversation capabilities, and to allow the user to peacefully develop a portion of a non-gaming universe without being forced to strive towards a pre-defined goal.[23]

In non-gaming universes, the criteria avatars have to fulfill in order to become useful can depend to a great extent on the age of potential users. Research suggests that younger users of virtual communities put great emphasis on fun and entertainment aspects of avatars and their practical functionalities (such as whispering). They are also interested in the simple ease of use of avatars, and their ability to retain the user’s anonymity. Meanwhile, older users pay great importance to an avatar’s ability to reflect their own appearance, identity and personality. Most older users also want to be able to use an avatar’s expressive functionalities (such as showing emotions), and are prepared to learn new ways of navigation to do it. Social scientists at Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab[24] examine the implications, possibilities and transformed social interaction that occur when people interact via avatars.

Avatar-based non-gaming universes are usually populated by age groups whose requirements concerning avatars are fulfilled. For example, most users of Habbo Hotel, Ty Girlz and Webkinz are aged 10 to 15 years, while users of Gaia Online and WeeWorld are 13 to 18. The reason may well be the properties and functionalities of the avatars of these virtual communities. In contrast, There and Kaneva Game Platform target users aged 22 to 49 and their avatars allow for a wide range of social interactions, including the expression of emotions: laughing, waving, blowing kisses and rude gestures. The Palace, most of whose users seem to be older, allows users to use their own images as avatars. This turns the avatar into a direct reflection of users' real-life appearance, as desired by older users.

Some researchers have suggested that customizable avatars in non-gaming worlds tend to be biased towards lighter skin colors and against darker skin colors, especially in those of the male gender.[25] These observations are less true of Second Life, where avatars range from lifelike humans to more fanciful robots, animals, and mythical creatures, with avatars created by players. The main Second Life grid is open only to adults, and participation is driven by social, artistic and commercial motivations.[26][27] The avatar customization is one of the most important entertainment aspects in non gaming virtual worlds, such as Second Life, IMVU and Active Worlds. Many virtual worlds are providing users with tools to customize their representations, allowing them to change shapes, hair, skins and also genre. Moreover there is a growing secondary industry devoted to the creations of products and items for the avatars. Some companies have also launched social networks[28] and other websites for avatars such as Koinup, Myrl, Avatars United.

British singer Lady Wallace uses a 3d avatar and films her own music videos in the virtual world of IMVU. Her first full record release, released in January 2009, is "Music To Watch Avatars By" (Kutmusic).


To meet the demand for millions of unique, customised avatars, generator tools and services have been created.[29]


As avatars grow in use, services to centralyse design, management and transportation of digital avatars start to appear. They can offer to deployed in virtual worlds, online games, social networks, video clips, greeting cards, mobile apps, as well as professional animation and pre-visualization projects. For example, Evolver (3D Avatar Web Portal) seems to be the first solution to bring together complex 3D modeling, consumer ease of use, and fully interoperable avatars.[30]


  1. Lessig, Lawrence. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Basic Books, 2000. ISBN 0-465-03913-8
  2. Fink, Jeri. Cyberseduction: Reality in the Age of Psychotechnology. Prometheus Books, 1999. ISBN 1-57392-743-0
  3. Blackwood, Kevin. Casino Gambling For Dummies. For Dummies, 2006. p.284. ISBN 0-471-75286-X
  4. Jordan, Tim. Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet. Routledge, 1999. ISBN 0-415-17078-8
  5. "Avatar etymology". Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=avatar. 
  6. Morabito, Margaret. "Enter the Online World of LucasFilm." Run Aug. 1986: 24-28
  7. A Beginner's Web Glossary
  8. Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. New York: Bantam, 2003 (reissue). pp. 469-70.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Designing Isometric Avatars
  10. June Herold, former AOL VP who led the creation of buddy icons at various times from 2000 to 2004, when there were 100 million users of AOL's instant messaging services
  11. June Herold, former AOL VP who led the creation of buddy icons at various times from 2000 to 2004.
  12. June Herold, former AOL VP who led the creation of buddy icons at various times from 2000 to 2004.
  13. June Herold, former AOL VP creation of buddy icons at various times from 2000 to 2004.
  14. June Herold, former AOL VP, who led the creation of buddy icons at various times from 2000 to 2004
  15. Skype Extras
  16. Skype Extras
  17. June Herold, former vice president of AOL, who led the creation of the first icons to be used for marketing at AOL.
  18. Coldplay's US Tour: The Results Are In
  19. IGN: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
  20. Duke Nukem 3D
  21. Cook, Brad. "Xbox 360 dashboard update is live; Avatar Marketplace gets Gears Armor and Lightsabers". Examiner. http://www.examiner.com/x-15094-Sacramento-Xbox-Examiner~y2009m8d11-Xbox-360-dashboard-update-is-live-Avatar-Marketplace-gets-Gears-Armor-and-Lightsabers. Retrieved 2009-09-19. 
  22. Cook, Brad. "Xbox Examiner weekly Avatar Thursdays". Examiner. http://www.examiner.com/x-15094-Sacramento-Xbox-Examiner~topic338927-Avatars?selstate=topcat#breadcrumb. Retrieved 2009-09-19. 
  23. Damer, Bruce. Avatars: Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet. Peachpit Press, 1997. ISBN 0-201-68840-9
  24. VHIL: Virtual Human Interaction Lab - Stanford University
  25. Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0-415-93836-8
  26. http://www.realtimearts.net/article/80/8662 Dance Film: Spiritual Odyssey, RealTime 80, August-September 2007.
  27. http://www.slnn.com/article/thursdays-fictions/ Experience the next life at Thursday's Fictions, Second Life News Network.
  28. Bruce Sterling, New World Notes, September 28, 2007, "Get a First Life,"http://blog.wired.com/sterling/2007/09/get-a-first-lif.html /
  29. Pariah S. Burke, Macworld.com (Monday, September 21, 2009), Cartoon You: Creating Easy Avatars, PC World, http://www.pcworld.com/businesscenter/article/172320/cartoon_you_creating_easy_avatars.html 
  30. CIX Top 20: Darwin Dimensions & Evolver, by Rob Lewis, techvibes, 02 dec 2009.

Academic research/work on avatars

  • Holzwarth, Martin, Janiszewski, Chris, Neumann, Marcus: "The Influence of Avatars on Online Consumer Shopping Behavior" in: Journal of Marketing, October 2006, Volume 70, Issue 4
  • Meadows, Mark Stephen (2008) "I, Avatar; The Culture and Consequences Of Having A Second Life," Peachpit / New Riders, ISBN 0-321-53339-9
  • Sloan, R.J.S., Robinson, B., Cook, M., and Bown, J. (2008). Dynamic emotional expression choreography: perception of naturalistic facial expressions. In M. Capey, B. Ip and F. Blastland, editors, SAND Conference Proceedings, Swansea, UK 24-28 November 2008. Swansea Metropolitan University: Swansea
  • Wood, Natalie T, Michael R. Solomon and Basil G. Englis (2005) “Personalization of Online Avatars: Is the Messenger as Important as the Message?” International Journal of Internet Marketing and Advertising, 2 (1/2), 143-161.

External links

Avatars at the Open Directory Projectca:Avatar (icona) cs:Avatar da:Avatar (chat) de:Avatar (Internet) es:Avatar (Internet) fr:Avatar (informatique) ko:아바타 hr:Avatar (informatika) id:Avatar (internet) it:Avatar (realtà virtuale) he:אווטאר (דמות וירטואלית) lt:Avataras (internetas) nl:Avatar (computer) ja:アバター pl:Awatar (rzeczywistość wirtualna) pt:Avatar (realidade virtual) ksh:Avata (Kompjutorei) ro:Avatar (web) ru:Аватар (Интернет) fi:Avatar (internet) th:อวตาร (คอมพิวเตอร์) zh:纸娃娃系统

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