Avatar Designers and Methods

"It's ironic that Juanita has come into this place in a low-tech, black-and-white avatar. She was the one who figured out a way to make avatars show something close to real emotion.. they all came to the realization that what made this place a success was not the collision-avoidance algorithms or the bouncer daemons or any of that other stuff. It was Juanita's faces."

-Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, pages 63-64.

In this section, we will cover two Avatar character designer software applications which are including on the book CD-ROM. We will also take a look at some avatar creation methods from Live Picture and RealSpace.

Sven Technologies' Avatar Maker

3D Planet's 3D Assistant Internet Utilities

Live Picture FlashPix Avatar and RealSpace World Technologies

Sven Technologies' Avatar Maker

A look at Sven's AvatarMaker

Sven Technologies (find them at: http://www.sven-tech.com) has been kind enough to provide us with their excellent avatar creation tool, AvatarMaker. You can install AvatarMaker from your book CD-ROM or download a newer demo version from Sven's web site. AvatarMaker runs on Windows 95 or Windows NT and allows you to make a 3D avatar of yourself without having to know about 3D technology. You can use AvatarMaker's FaceMapper tool to take a scanned photograph of yourself and wrap it around a frame to create your avatar head. With the BodyBuilder tool you can sculpt and animate your avatar body and place it into a number of different poses. Next, you can clothe your avatar in the Wardrobe area of AvatarMaker using a variety of textured clothing options. The PropShop allows you to add props to your avatar, such as hairstyles, hats or even a bicycle!

When you are happy with your avatar, you can use the Teleport tool to export it to a number of formats, including VRML 1.0 or 2.0 (for use in Black Sun's Passport or other VRML worlds), as a 2D Palace avatar or as an image or movie (.AVI) file. To integrate your avatar into a Black Sun Passport world, you should check the Cybersockets documentation on the Black Sun Web site at: http://www.blacksun.com/products/csockets/doc/index.html. Note that the integration of avatars into multi-user VRML environments is still a process that has to be done by hand and is for the reasonably technically literate. Using AvatarMaker to make an avatar for the Palace you should realize that your model will be exported as a small, flat image. This image can then be imported into the Palace. You should not be too concerned with 3D detail in your avatar model as much of it will be lost when it is made into the small image.

3D Planet's 3D Assistant Internet Utilities

3D Assistant in action
Click to get print resolution version

The good folks at 3D Planet, a Los Angeles-based software company, have been kind enough to provide us with 3D Assistant Internet Utilities, a great avatar design kit which can produce a texture-mapped 3D VRML avatar. Future versions available from their website at http://www.3dplanet.com will allow you to design whole avatar bodies and to export 3D Assistants. 3D Assistants are bot avatars which can float on top of your desktop or Internet sites, popping up when people visit your webpage. This is an exciting new technology that makes "agent" software (used for searching or storing your preferences) more usable by embodying it with a more human interface.

Where to get these tools?

Find 3D Assistant and Sven Technologies' Avatar Maker under the Build Worlds, Design Avatars section on the CD-ROM. Both of these programs are designed for Windows 95 and NT. Good help files are available in the software and on both the 3D Planet and Sven Technologies home pages.

Live Picture FlashPix Avatar and RealSpace World Technologies

Live Picture (at http://www.livepicture.com) has developed a whole series of avatar and world creation technologies based on the concept of Photorealism. Photorealism means that you use real pictures of the world to create the backdrops or textures of a world. This is becoming much more important in virtual worlds and avatar design. A Phototextured avatar is one made by wrapping images of real people's faces or bodies around the frame of an avatar. We saw this in action in the previous sections on Avatar Maker and 3DCreate.

Live picture has developed a whole range of technologies to bring photorealism to virtual worlds. Chief among these is the RealSpace image server using a technology called FlashPix. You may notice when you get really close to avatars or objects in virtual worlds that you can start seeing the individual colored rectangles that make up the textures on their surfaces. This is called pixellation and FlashPix solves this problem by serving you increasingly detailed images as you get closer to an object or zoom in on a picture.

Modeling Scott's hut in Antarctica

A company called RealSpace, Inc. (which recently merged) with Live Picture developed a technology called RealVR Traveler, which allows beautiful wrap-around phototextured scenes to be delivered over the Internet. Members of the RealSpace team originally developed Apple's QuickTime VR, in which you could serve a cylinder or sphere of pixels that represents a view of the world from one spot. Combining FlashPix with this, you can travel closer to the walls of this sphere and see more details. Recently, Live Picture placed VRML objects inside RealSpace worlds with FlashPix and build a model of the adventurer Scott's hut in Antarctica. You could navigate through realistic scenes of this hut and go up to the biscuit tins on the table. Both FlashPix and RealSpace promise great contributions to making virtual worlds look richer and more realistic.

Putting it all together on an avatar

In late 1996 I was involved in a series of experiments sponsored by Live Picture and carried out by Peter Hughes, an expert in the creation of photorealistic scenes and avatars. Peter set up a turnstile at the home of my neighbors Alan Lundell and Sun McNamee here in Boulder Creek, and for several hours he used this contraption to create some pretty advanced avatars. He would start by having someone rotate a live model for an avatar, in this case, Wendy Sue Noah (shown in the following figure). The lighting and the reflections from her clothing was critical to make a great looking avatar (and certainly better to look at than me!).

On the Turnstile for Live Picture

Peter would take dozens of still pictures with high speed film and then scan them in and stitch them together. Peter also mastered the technique of taking photographs of faces with closer and closer focus on the eyes. This was done for the FlashPix image enhancement. The closer you got to someone's avatar's eye the more detail you would see. My ugly mug was used for the first first phototextured and FlashPixed avatar faces ever made. As you can see in the next figure, the results are interesting if not flattering. I can turn this model of me and zoom in getting whole new levels of details (down to every pore).

Figure 14.3.4: ow1as.jpg
The Author in a FlashPix Avatar

There are many more World Building and Avatar Creation Tools out there

The tools and techniques we have described here represent only a small fraction of the ways avatars can be made. The movie business has used methods for capturing virtual actors for more than twenty years. Hollywood studios have been scanning in actors in 3D, capturing their motion, and creating virtual doubles or principal stars for many films and TV shows. This field is sometimes called performance animation. I expect that performance animation and Hollywood will contribute a great deal to the technologies underlying avatars in the next few years. See our section Links to World Building and Avatar Designing Resources later in this chapter for more resources in world building and avatar creation.

VRML Worlds

The best way to learn how to build worlds is, of course, to go and visit a few. If you are going to use VRML to build 3D worlds, the best way to explore other VRML worlds is to download and install a VRML plug-in to your Web browser and then visit Web sites hosting these worlds. Be careful about having a VRML 2.0 browser for VRML 2.0 worlds. The old VRML 1.0 standard is still used. If you make a VRML world, you can plug it into avatar environments like Black Sun's Passport and Onlive's Traveler or you can link them to web pages to be browsed (visited alone).

© Copyright Bruce Damer, 1997, All rights reserved.