Published: Monday 31 March 1997

On-line avatar
The Internet supports many on-line worlds but at present each one demands that the user create a new on-line identity. All this is set to change as the developers of on-line realms prepare to standardise the way a participant's on-line persona - known as an avatar - is represented.

People meet in a variety of places on the Internet. These include chat rooms, where conversation is text-based and revolves around preset topics, and multiuser dungeons (MUDs), which are mainly text-based adventures in which players take on roles dictated by the era in which each game is set.

Now, virtual worlds have emerged with 3-D graphics created by using a software standard known as the Virtual Reality Modelling Language. Like chat rooms and MUDs, virtual worlds can either be places to chat and meet or the setting for an on-line fantasy adventure, but the medium is image-based.

In every type of interactive on-line community, participants pick an avatar to represent them. In text-based worlds, this could be a name or a description such as 'large barbarian in loin cloth', with notes on any special powers the character may have. In image-based worlds, players choose a picture or animated icon to act out their commands.

While the software that keeps the Internet is shared by everyone, the same is not true of the software used within virtual worlds. For many of these, them are e&clusive definitions of what am avatar looks like, what it can do and how data is passed around the Internet between participants.

One of the originators of the idea of universal avatars is Maclen Marvit, who works for Worlds Inc, which develops on-line graphite chat environments. Marvit and his colleagues are probing how avatars are set up and treated in different settings. They are confident that the standard model will be completed this year.

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