Half a billion people around the world spend more than 20 hours a week "wearing" avatars, that is, using digital representations of themselves.
Did you know that a virtual representation of a politician could be more convincing than the politician himself? That your heart beats just as fast when your girlfriend winks at you from your computer screen as when she walks into the room? That if you make your onscreen surrogate mimic your friend's head movements, he's more likely to do what you say?
Within three years, many online interactions will not simply involve passages of text typed on a keyboard but will instead be rich exchanges involving sophisticated representations of ourselves. Those digital beings are called avatars, and today at least half a billion people around the world are routinely socializing through them over the Internet, for example in online games.
Others spend many hours each week controlling avatars inside their own homes, using game platforms like the Wii and Xbox.
And avatars aren't just for recreation. A vice president at IBM has predicted that by 2015 all IBMers will have avatars to send to work-related meetings and presentations.
The use of avatars is booming. But even more people use social media—at least a billion people around the world.
It's only a matter of time before these two trends—realistic avatars and social media—intersect. As more people gain experience with avatars, and as the technology for enriching them improves, we can expect avatars to play far bigger roles in communications. Evidence suggests that the use of avatars could profoundly alter our social behaviors and work performance—for better or worse.
Avatars have special advantages. A videoconference system continuously captures what someone is doing in the real world and sends that image to another locale. But avatar technology works differently—it captures only selected movements, sending enough information about them over a network to allow the computer on the other end to re-create the action. That difference has two helpful consequences. First, the avatar can be shown doing things that a camera doesn't see, or the system can ignore certain motions. Second, the avatar can be controlled without any network delay, because there is no need to send bandwidth-hogging HD pixels.
Remember Second Life? That was the first commercially successful home for avatars that was not a video game. Its cartoonish characters can be controlled (awkwardly) only through the computer mouse and keyboard, and network lags deter users, though developers are trying to improve the experience.
But avatars have evolved over the years and are growing to resemble their human controllers, both in how they look and how they behave. Look at the Kinect, Nintendo's Wii, and Sony's PlayStation Move, which are all now equipped with devices that transform players' physical actions into virtual body movements. Digital avatars move in tandem with their wearers as the latter jump, point guns, and swing rackets.
Soon avatars are going to get even more compelling. Advances in 3-D are changing the entertainment industries; they will change avatars as well. And you can already purchase inexpensive devices from such makers as Novint Technologies and Scent Sciences Corp. that augment video games with tactile feedback or a sequence of scents. So, besides hearing and seeing conversational partners, you can potentially feel and smell them.
While avatar technology has been steadily improving, social networking, with its text, still images, and jerky videos, has been skyrocketing. Adults in developed countries who have access to any kind of digital tools have quickly come to depend on the Internet to shop, do business, and entertain and educate themselves. Online dating, which was somewhat stigmatized just a few years ago, is now the norm.