She looked like Xena the Warrior Princess--and she was coming on to me!
"Hi there, what's your name? Can I buy you a beer," she said, sliding onto the barstool next to mine.
With Roman headgear strapped to my smiling mug, I felt a bit uncomfortable. Some guy dressed as Death was watching me from the corner while another couple snuggled on a couch. Was her muscle-bound boyfriend nearby? What should I say?
Fortunately, I could say whatever I wanted (don't worry, I was a gentleman) without fear of embarrassment or anxiety about jealous boyfriends. That's because Xena and I weren't in a bar in the East Village, we were cavorting in cyberspace. And Xena wasn't really Xena; she was a graphical representation on the Net known as an avatar. It's the latest in high-tech interaction, and although most people still use it for humankind's oldest sport, flirting, technocrats believe it is the future of the World Wide Web.
Basically, avatars are two- or three-dimensional characters that you adopt online. They range in sophistication from static cartoon heads and images of curvaceous women that converse by typing to 3-D figures you can make walk through landscapes, pick up virtual bottles, open virtual doors, and talk live to other walking, talking virtual figures. The most sophisticated avatars can become a sort of prosthesis of being, an extension of your self...or what you'd like to be.
This is the bleeding edge of the Web. Using the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (or VRML) programmers are creating ever more sophisticated graphical worlds and characters that not only take any form you wish—from Mickey Mouse to Pamela Lee—but also can contain your personal preferences, vital statistics, and interests (hence the term, avatar). Eventually, you may send your avatar out to wander the Web by itself, scouring cyberspace using intelligent agent software to pull together information you want. Or your avatar may enter virtual stores and be accosted by virtual salespeople while you sip coffee and read the newspaper at your desk.
Over the course of several weeks, I explored some of the leading avatar sites to gauge the state of the art. But before you follow my mouse clicks, a few words of warning. Each one of these sites requires that you download rather large (up to 16 MB) client software files. The software is usually free, but you must install it on your system in order to enter virtual avatar-filled worlds. Most of the software is designed to work under Windows 95 with Netscape Navigator 3.0 or higher (although I discovered that several would work on their own without a browser). Finally, the amount of fun and interaction you have may depend on the speed of your connection, which can vary depending on where you are and how much Net traffic there happens to be in the real world.
Spun out of Time Warner Interactive last year, The Palace is perhaps the most established and stable avatar hangout on the Net. Boasting investment interests from the likes of Intel, Time Warner, and Softbank, it's also one of the more populated virtual worlds you can confidently visit without crashing your system. The client software you use can be downloaded for free, but you can only use it for 3 hours. After that, there's a $25 registration fee for unlimited access.
At The Palace you can inhabit a two-dimensional avatar in a variety of guises. Newbies are given a Happy Face virtual presence (known as a "roundhead" by the regulars), but you can customize your image to look like anything from a movie star to a denizen of Mystery Science Theater 3000. You can change the expression of the regular icons (happy, sad, or inebriated) as well as add clothes and props, depending on your mood. Conversations are in text form only, and appear on-screen in cartoon bubbles (some sound effects are available). The worlds you can currently visit are quite varied, including special interest groups such as the science fiction area. This may be the simplest avatar site I visited and it is the only for-pay one I reviewed, but its ease of use and stability make it worth the $25 fee. And the crowd is generally friendly.
The sleekest cyberspaces I visited were those that utilized OnLive Technology's software. Called OnLive Traveler, the free client program enables you to visit 3D spaces as a floating 3D head. It may make you feel like an oracle suspended in an abstract world of iridescent alien landscapes, but you'll be able to do more with these characters than any others on the Web. After you choose the visage that appeals to you, you can then add to the avatar's personality by stretching your character's face, changing its colors or expression, or attaching your own brief profile so that other floating avatars know where you're coming from. When you're ready to go, you can roam all over these virtual planets and even perform Exorcist-style maneuvers.
Best of all is that you don't have to be able to type to communicate in these spaces. OnLive is enabled for real-time voice conversations. The audio quality can be choppy, but you can converse in your own voice (as long as your computer has a sound card and a microphone). If you would rather maintain the fantasy, OnLive also lets you disguise your voice. Of the worlds you can travel to with the software there's a Monday Night Football site, an MTV site, and Aztec Utopia whose Stonehenge space seems to attract a fair number of visitors. In my tests as a floating parakeet head, the 2.0 beta software caused more than a few problems, but its advanced features put OnLive months ahead of the competition.
For the cutting edge in three-dimensional virtual spaces, there's Oz Interactive. Founded in Iceland 7 years ago as a high-end graphics design company, Oz has expanded into the VRML arena. Currently online for your testing enjoyment is the company's latest version of its Oz Virtual browser. Although it can take some patience to set up, it's an experience that bleeding edge users won't want to miss. Using the new software you can enter the Oz space station, from which I recommend touring Oz Square.
You approach the square from above and fly into it like some helicopter camera shot from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It's flashy, but still pretty captivating. Once you reach the square, you can enter the Oz Club and tour the facilities. The emphasis at Oz is on the virtual worlds—rather than on the virtual people—and the company already has plans to build a virtual store for Atlantic Records. The download will take you a good 20 minutes or more, you'll have to run your computer in high-color mode, and I recommend downloading the ActiveX controls to make it work properly. Even after taking all of these precautions, the program still hung my system from time to time, but it was worth the ride.
Black Sun Interactive
Also pushing the 3D envelope is Black Sun Interactive. At the company's site you can download its Passport 2.0 avatar software for free. Passport is a multi-user VRML for Netscape Navigator 3.0. After you've installed the software, you can choose a nickname and an avatar from a dozen or so characters off the Black Sun site and then interact with other avatars in 3D VRML worlds. The main characters here are lanky gesturing figures decked out in slightly different guises, and there are some post-modern cartoon-like polygon figures to choose from. Black Sun continues to offer newer personalities on a nearly weekly basis.
Among the Black Sun worlds you can visit, there's PointWorld, a town square setting featuring reviews of other Web sites, and Cybertown, a virtual community that touts games and places to hang out. In my travels with Black Sun, I had more trouble getting the sites to work than with the software itself. But keep your eye on this avatar maker as more virtual worlds collide.