Avatars to change the face of business

In Bruce Damer’s reality, it is not uncommon to hold a conversation with a giant talking cat head or to traverse a trade show floor in the body of a robot.

In the mundane world, Damer is the author of the book Avatars!: Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet, and a founding director of the Contact Consortium (www.ccon.org), a non-profit research organization which supports the development of on-line virtual worlds and the creation of their avatar populations.

Avatars, or virtual representations of living creatures, and their networked environments represent the next major wave in on-line communications, according to Damer.

“They represent a brand new meeting of human communications. The virtual worlds are worlds where people come to socialize, where people come to build cities and try utopian experiences and to build together and learn together.”

Damer, who was in Toronto to speak at the IBM Canada Ltd.-sponsored CASCON software engineering conference, said avatars are used mostly for recreational purposes, but that is changing as businesses discover the benefits of the new reality.

“Research departments at places like Boeing, for example, are looking at virtual worlds. Boeing is trying to solve hard problems like how to train lots of people over and over again, and not have the huge costs of flying people [to training centres],” Damer said.

“It comes down to companies like Boeing saying, ‘Yes, we use videoconferencing and we use NetMeeting, but we’re missing things. We can’t have stuff inside the meeting. We’re only beaming views from one desk to the other, but people at a conference need to have stuff.’

“So these virtual worlds that Boeing has aren’t full of avatars in skimpy costumes, they’re full of avatars with people’s faces on them and live video streams. It still looks a little weird, but it looks more like collaborative space. “

Damer said it will probably take a generational change before avatars become our alternate on-line business presence, just as it took time before company executives became comfortable using word processors.

Unlike virtual reality technology, 2D and 3D virtual worlds require no special gloves, visors or hardware gear. One upcoming use of this technology will be customer relationship management.

Damer’s company, DigitalSpace Corp. (www.digitalspace.com), is currently in the process of building such a site.

“We are working with a health insurance company in Europe. They want to have a virtual community for their customer base where people can come to their headquarters. It is costly to maintain support for [global clients] and yet the people have a lot of questions. This way, they can come into this world — which is a virtual representation of the headquarters — and it will be staffed 24 hours per day and they can ask about travel health insurance and family planning, and all these kinds of complex things.”

Damer said virtual worlds won’t just enable customers to interact with the company, but with other customers as well.

“Watch companies start to use this to build customer communities. You can expect somebody like Volvo, that already supports its car-owner clubs, to be building something like Volvo World, which would have Volvo cars and be Volvo-themed and which would always have some retired Volvo guy who knows all about Volvo cars and Volvo history.

“Companies are already supporting chat rooms and fairly simple things, but I think in the 21st century, people will look back at chat rooms in the same way we look back at the days [of] telegraph operators…in the 1860s and 1870s. They had the first virtual community.”

Like any new technology, avatars and virtual worlds come with their own problems. Companies using virtual worlds will have to concern themselves with the regulation of both behaviour and language, and will have to deal with a form of virtual dress code — what physical manifestations will be permitted in which type of spaces.

Actions which take place in the virtual world may fall under the civil code within the jurisdiction of whoever is hosting the world.

“Sometimes the rules can be set by the software. For example, you can’t vandalize property, you can’t move somebody else’s objects, because the server won’t let you pick it up, but a lot of the issues are people-to-people issues — people insulting other people, people shadowing people, and so on.”

Technology issues must also be addressed if avatars are to become commonplace. Since virtual worlds don’t exist on the Internet as most people know it, software must be put on desktops that will allow access. Because the underlying technology is commonplace — TCP/IP packets, UDP, FTP, sometimes HTTP — often times it is as simple as downloading a plug-in into a browser, but it can be more complicated.

“You can run them as plug-ins inside a browser, but the browser metaphor is: send a page and wait. It isn’t about interaction. It’s about the document metaphor and links, and to my mind that isn’t going to be the ultimate shape of cyberspace. The browser’s a nice tool, but it’s still a data bank.”

Virtual worlds, however, can also offer their share of technological benefits. For example, they are less bandwidth-intensive than regular Internet applications.

“The voice worlds are harder, but the 3D chat room is very much less bandwidth intensive than Web surfing,” Damer said. “What happens is that stuff flows in but they are like Lego pieces and they cache and they’re all really small like 2KB or 5KB. After they flowed in their rendering, locally all that is going back and forth is the movement of people and what they are saying, so what you are using is four per cent, maybe, of the modem’s capacity. Normally I run demos on my laptop and I can run six or seven worlds at one time on one 28.8Kbps connection.”