Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Cyber stand-ins

They're called avatars, and although they're imaginary, the people they represent are willing to spend real money on them.

Cathy Millet spends part of each evening as Maxie - a white heart with large, ornately painted eyes.

This is no costume. Millet, 40, wears an avatar - a decorative persona that a growing number of people around the world use to represent themselves in cyberspace.

Some of these characters are detailed, digital versions of the person they represent - the person who wears them, in cyberworld parlance. Others are more fanciful animals or objects, such as the big-eyed heart Millet has worn for nine years.

"I think it says, 'I'm watching you, I'm aware of you, and I got a lot of love. I'm somebody who cares,' " said the mother of three from Point Pleasant, N.J.

Not only do avatars give the cybersavvy an opportunity to express who they are or who they wish they were; the virtual people have also become consumers - and big business.

The roughly 3.4 million realistically human avatars inhabiting the popular virtual world called Second Life face the same purchasing decisions as people IRL (In Real Life). They buy land, build houses, attend events, and wear fashionable clothes. The person behind the avatar spends real money on these virtual goods, and there are actual real estate agents and clothing designers who exist solely to provide them.

The profit model works differently at Yahoo, where tens of millions of two-dimensional avatars are used in chat rooms, message boards and instant messages. There, advertisers pay Yahoo to create digitized products that users may choose for their avatars at no cost.

During the World Cup, Adidas paid Yahoo to create Adidas avatar jerseys for every soccer team. Pepsi sponsors rock-and-roll gear - drum sets and the like - emblazoned with the soda's logo. The Carl's Jr. restaurant chain - known as Hardees in the East - has sponsored shirts with food stains on them, part of an ad campaign advising that you're not really eating a sandwich unless you get messy.

"You'll see more of this" around the Web, said Jeff Bonforte, a senior director of product management at Yahoo. "It would not surprise me to see entire stores of advertiser's products, Louis Vuitton this, Prada that."

Whether or not avatar owners choose to participate in these commercial ventures, they are certainly advertising themselves.

Bonforte's avatar shares his hair and eye color, is accompanied by a dog that looks like his Lab, and is standing by the open door of an airplane in flight. Not surprisingly, Bonforte skydives.

"That's my archetypal best," he said of his mini-me. "That's the me I want people to see."

Seth Rich, a 37-year-old math teacher who uses avatars of himself to blog, instant message with friends, and entertain his students at Furness High School in Philadelphia, said that avatars become the physical identity of people he knows only through cyberspace. The more personalized they are, he said, the more they say about the person behind them.

A "canned" avatar chosen from a Web site does not say much. "It doesn't interest me once I see it a lot," said Rich, who lives in Elkins Park. If an avatar is like "a picture of you, that's a little more interesting."

Millet, who works for an Internet marketing firm, is a sign technician for Ocean County, New Jersey, and runs a nonprofit called New Jersey Alliance for Informed Choice in Vaccination, cannot choose an avatar that literally looks like her.

The world she visits - Traveler - is visually old-school, said computer and avatar historian Bruce Damer, chief executive officer of Digital Space Commons and author of the book Avatars! Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet. Traveler, created in 1996, was made popular after MTV did a feature on it. These days, it is maintained only by its users - including Millet - who do so just for love.

But audibly, Traveler allows the ultimate personalization, as the avatars speak in their real-world person's voice. There is no typing involved in the conversation - users talk into a microphone or, in a pinch, into the earpiece of a headphone. The avatars lip-sync. And the closer another avatar comes, the louder its voice gets - just as in real life.

Recently Millet met up with friends - a horse, a white rabbit, a black-and-white face, a spiky ball, and two cats - at a cyberspace 1950s-style burger joint.

To a first-time visitor, the space was akin to the bar scene in Star Wars or the Restaurant at the End of the Universe from The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy. Yet within minutes, the new user turned her avatar to look at the avatar who was talking - or on this occasion, discussing why it is that people from Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York say they "food shop at the food store," while much of the country buys groceries at the grocery store.

Strong associations are made even with the relatively simple, nonhuman avatars available for Traveler, its users say.

The black-and-white mask known as Dominic - in real life, his name is Richard Peters and he lives near Seattle - said that at times, he and others have learned to associate a certain avatar with a user whose personality they don't like. It can be hard to break that association when someone else picks the same avatar, he said.

Millet says first impressions based on avatars are quite accurate. "There's a pretty-girl avatar that most girls do at first, and if they also give themselves a sweetie-lovey name, I think they are looking for attention . . . or they are a kid," Millet said.

"Teenage boys might pick the skull avatar. One we call a lotus head - it has spiky hair - and the rebel guys are picking that. Animal lovers are picking the cat all the time."

The next avatar frontier may be a place that those looking for a break from reality avoid.

Even avatars that are supposed to look like virtual copies of their humans have tended to be more forgiving than in real life.

Rich, the Elkins Park teacher, says his avatars strongly resemble him, but "the animated avatar is skinnier than me. The Web site doesn't have a pudgy body type."

Take heart, ultrarealists. Yahoo recently added fuller-bodied avatar options, Bonforte said. And gray hair, too.

Suffering through your RL faults in your virtual life? Now that might be too real.