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
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
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
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
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
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.
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).