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The Experts Speak on Avatar Design

As you contemplate how best to design effective avatars and the worlds they live in, you might be concluding that this is a very big design challenge. Whole new fields are emerging around the representation of human identity in Cyberspace. From anthropologists, to character animators, to psychologists and fashion designers, everyone seems to have something to contribute to this new medium. In August of 1997, a major panel and special interest group on avatars as a new design medium was held at the annual SIGGRAPH conference. Experts in this new field gathered, presented their views and engaged in lively discussion with the audience. You can find an on-line version of this discussion hosted by SIGGRAPH at: After SIGGRAPH, I collected together a set of short writings from some these presenters and added a couple more avatar visionaries for good measure. If you are a budding avatar worlds designer, these folks will have something valuable for you:

Steve DiPaola: Steve DiPaola leads a team of artists, architects, UI designers and musicians in designing and developing 3D Avatars and virtual spaces at Onlive! Technologies, the creators of the Traveler voice-supported virtual world.

Reid Hoffman: Reid Hofman was director of technology and responsible for several major releases of Fujitsu Software's WorldsAway. He is currently starting his own company specializing in online relationships.

Moses Ma: Moses Ma is an Internet and computer gaming visionary and was the originator of the Universal Avatars specification with IBM. He recently became co-author of the Open Community VRML multi-user specification proposal with Mitsubishi Electronics.

Mitra: Mitra is a true pioneer of virtual world cyberspace, as one of the key developers of VRML and the original designer of Moving Worlds, which became VRML 2.0. Mitra has worked on multi-user products at Worlds, Inc. and Paragraph International. He heads up his own consulting company.

Ioannis Paniaras: Ioannis Paniaras is a fashion designer who recently completed his graduate research at the Media Lab of the University of Art and Design, Helsinki UIAH, Finland. Ioannis is designing virtual communities and studying avatar fashion trends and their influence on social life in cyberspace.

Kirk Parsons: Kirk Parsons is a developer of avatar authoring software at his company, Attic Graphics, and has served as an avatar technologist for a number of companies including Black Sun Interactive, Extempo Systems, and Circle of Fire Studios.

Bernie Roehl: Bernie Roehl is a software developer based at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Bernie has written several books and dozens of articles on virtual worlds and currently chairs the Virtual Humans Architecture Group and the Humanoid Animation Working Group of the VRML Consortium.

My Two Bits: the Emergence of a New Design Medium

Who do you want to be today? As thousands of Internet users begin new lives as 'avatars' in virtual worlds, a new design industry is being born. Avatars and the worlds they live in comprise a vast new design medium attracting a wide range of professionals including: anthropologists, 3D and multimedia designers, character animators, musicians, voice and facial expression specialists, performance artists, architects, business workgroup and workflow experts, and educators involved in distance learning. In addition, avatar standards efforts such as Living Worlds, Universal Avatars and Open Community have been initiated.

Issue Areas

The design of multi-user graphical virtual environments is one of the most challenging new areas in computer science and consumer on-line services. Virtual worlds supporting tens of thousands of users in simultaneous communication and in which they can build their own spaces and shape their own faces represents a truly great achievement.

Despite all that wonderful technology, the number one question asked by users entering these virtual environments is: how can I design my own avatar? The success or failure of these worlds can hinge on avatar design issues. Basic design decisions often involve trade-offs: in the initial technology choices (2D versus 3D, polygonal versus photorealistic), in the methods of communication (text versus voice, gesture versus facial animation) and in the use of standards (VRML versus proprietary 3D, IRC versus custom communication backbones). The most difficult design criteria to pin down are aesthetic: what makes one person 'like' or 'identify' with their avatar can be often very personal and subjective.

Pass the Buck to the Experts

Steve DiPaola

I believe in design approaches which rely heavily on techniques to make users feel that they are really interacting in the virtual space. These techniques include: 3D attenuated voice and sound, 3D navigation, an immersive first person user interface, individualized 3D head avatars with emotions and lip synchronization, and good 3D space design. Our team at Onlive Technologies transposed this experience to consumer based PC platforms connected to the Internet at dial-up speeds. The design approach to avatar Cyberspace that I use is born of experience trying to emulate natural social paradigms and provide immersion in a 3D visual and sound landscapes. The following three design criteria are, I believe, key to the creation of experiences in virtual worlds in which users suspend their disbelief, and get lost in a kind of virtual cocktail party experience:

Onlive Traveler, on which Steve worked, is described in this book and on the Web at: and Steve's own web page is at:

Reid Hoffman

Reid challenges us with the claim that we have been living in virtual communities for years and that people will eventually conclude: "if I can see it, it is real".

Living Virtually

At first blush, virtual communities seem like a novel invention. Cohabiting a virtual space with other real people - what a concept! What are these chat rooms, these virtual worlds, these simulated social realities? Are they games? Are they real places? Are they a new form of life? These questions seem natural. Therefore, these apparently new virtual communities seem strange, even alien to everyday experience. With this alien strangeness, it appears that perhaps only social outcasts will grace these communities, that these new worlds will only exist in the shadow of everyday life.

I have news. You have been living in virtual communities for years. Telephones, fax machines, postal mail, and other media, have created a living, breathing, virtual community around us as we slept. A telephone number is an address in virtual space. A voice is an avatar, the electronic representation of a person. Even so, not all avatars represent real people! Sometimes, the result of surfing a dialtone results in a synthetic voice - fully interactive, but only partially real. Virtual communities are already mainstream.

The novelty, the strangeness, arises from two sources: the casual social environment and the visual look. As recently as two years ago, all mainstream virtual communities involved directed communication. Each real-time, interactive communication was directed to specific individuals.

Sure, a teleconference might involve an unusually large number of people or an unfamiliar person, but a person did not stumble accidentally into a teleconference. Suddenly, virtual communities include casual social environments. It is no surprise why chat rooms have become a pick-up bar of the nineties.

The other important evolution of virtual communities is the new visual overlay. Virtual communities now have visual substance. People generally apply the rule, "if I can see it, it is real." Correspondingly, suddenly, on the basis of this rule, visual communities leap from the electronic wires to a comfortable spot in the living room.

These two new capacities will drastically increase people's participation in virtual communities, and thereby increase the belief in their reality. Eventually, real virtual communities will be virtually real communities. Virtually speaking, the only real difference will be their location in cyberspace.

See Reid's WorldsAway projects at: and his current work on:

Moses Ma

I am part of several efforts to develop and promote a standard set of formats, protocols and design methodologies for avatars. Until now, avatars have been system and browser dependent, which meant that an avatar created for one virtual world wasn't necessarily compatible with other worlds. A number of people in the VRML business have put together a proposal, called Universal Avatars, which details a way to standardize what avatars are and do.

By using this proposed standard, avatars will be able to move from one world to another, keeping the same appearance and behavior. This means that users will be able to recognize other users' avatars that they met in other worlds. And their avatars will have individualized automatic actions, moods, and even pets. And they'll be able to tell how their friends, from around the world, are feeling today, just by the look on their avatar's faces.

The latest draft of our proposal now deals with a variety of issues, which begin with 3D models and behaviors, but now ventures forth to discuss other important issues, such as persistent identity, interworld communications, database concerns, and support for additional emerging standards such T-120, H-323 and Versit. We believe that this is an early basis for an emerging "operating system" for socialization.

Why have avatar stardards? It would be useful to have a standardized avatar representation for the purpose of visiting all virtual worlds with a user's preferred avatar representation and openly tendered identity profile. This has many benefits, including the reduction of the workload on the user, the standardization of global search for other people through their public avatar presentation, and the ability to create new business opportunities for VR vendors. The Universal Avatar system, if adopted, could have a fundamental impact on the design of avatars in the medium of virtual worlds on the Internet.

Learn more about what Moses does at:


The area of multi-user virtual worlds, is progressing on two parallel and equally important fronts, one is content: - what avatars looks like, how they behave etc., and the other is technical: how virtual worlds work under the covers. I say parallel, and equally important, because in the rapidly changing world we see two feedback loops, in the first, the technical possibilities and potential drives what the content authors create, in the other the content authors' experiences (and frustrations) with the technology drive the next technical steps. Personally, I sit firmly in the technical side of the equation, having designed the architecture behind two pioneering systems - Worlds Chat, the first consumer multi-user 3D chat system, and People Space, Japan's first 3D avatar virtual world (see the People Space homepage at: and the birth of People Space at: note that these pages are in Japanese).

Both these worlds were built by single companies - Worlds Inc, and ParaGraph, within these companies were network engineers designing the networking architecture, client designers building the application, and authors building the content for both the world and the avatars which would populate it. Both these architectures were subsequently used for other projects, but the architectures show a common limitation - that is that the creativity is limited to that present within one company, or at most between the development company, and the client company, nobody else could bring along an avatar and drop it into the world, nor could avatars from one world be used in another. As we've seen in the 2D web, the space only really takes off when large numbers of very creative people can each work on one part of the puzzle, knowing that whatever they build will work with the parts of the puzzle being solved by other people. The key enabling technological element for this is standards.

Living Worlds is an attempt to address this, to provide the technical framework within which people can work on different parts of the puzzle. In a Living Worlds system, network engineers, avatar authors, world authors and authoring tool builders can all work independently. The result ideally will be that you or I will be able, for example, to buy an authoring tool from Attic (Kirk Parson's company, see below), use it to build my avatar, animate this avatar with an animation tool from someone else, downloading funky new dance behaviors from Oz, and then use that avatar in a world built with SGI's world building tool. Once I can build an avatar and use it any world, I'm going to spend a lot more of my time, energy (and money) on that avatar, because it won't be limited to one world which I'll probably get bored with quickly.

I believe this is the future which will drive 3D multi-user worlds to a place where they become the new Cyberspace.

Visit Mitra Internet Consulting at:

Ioannis Paniaras

As an artist, designer, and researcher in CMC (computer mediated communication) I focus on issues related to the aesthetics, design, visual management of avatars, and their identity within the community. For any designer of avatars, I pose the following provocative questions:

This medium is not well understood but has demonstrated the power to de-fragment solid, singular identity (the modern notion of identity) and sustain the emergence of a plethora of virtual identities. Avatars are a key part of the visual and behavioral grammar of emerging cultures in virtual communities. By analyzing the design structure of the avatar we can help understand directions we might heading in human contact. I request any avatar designer to create new visions for avatar mediated communication by first starting with a solid understanding of human behavior.

Iaonnis' work can be viewed at:

Kirk Parsons

I have developed a profession in which I am able focus on avatar representation issues, including avatar animation. I always work with the primary goal being to relate the key technical trade-offs to avatar authoring possibilities. The underlying technology always affects an artist's choices in the design process. Some key parts of that underlying technology includes:

I believe that any designer of avatars must have a solid understanding of underlying technologies, not only to enable them to function within narrow bandwidth constraints, but also to create effective and aesthetically pleasing designs. The use of photorealism to reduce polygon count, texture mapping and morphing to create facial expression and other 'tricks' must be in the designer's grab bag of techniques.

Bernie Roehl

I come from a strong background in the technology of virtual reality, as well as insight into the activities of various standards groups (Living Worlds and the Virtual Humans Architecture Group) which are relevant to our efforts at avatar standards definition and avatar design. I feel it's important that we acknowledge the need to create expressive and communicative avatars within the constraints imposed by bandwidth, latency and rendering performance. My own personal feeling is that the key issues in the emergent field of avatar design are:

Visit with Bernie Roehl at: and see the VRML Humanoid Animation Working Group's Web pages at:

© Copyright Bruce Damer, 1997, All rights reserved.