Imagine an Internet chat room that looked just like a funky lounge. As a nondescript music track loops in the background, a cast fit for the Christopher Street Halloween parade mills through: a reclining Elvira floats overhead, while two Pac Men wearing silly hats attempt conversation with a Japanese cartoon character. Like a paper doll, a cutout photo of a Cindy Crawford wannabe wobbles in, a thought balloon percolates overhead with her comments to the room, bits of the same intelligent conversation that has made chat rooms famous the online world over.
This is a glimpse into virtual worlds, peopled by graphical icons, commonly called avatars, a world that hardly seems ripe for mainstream American advertising-yet.
In the basement of Chicago agency The Leap Partnership, programmer and designer Derek Carroll is busy at work trying to figure a way to make the land safe for clients, while he tries out some programming tricks. Right now he's inside a virtual 2-D environment called the House of Heat, which he created simply by downloading Time Warner's The Palace software (www.thepalace.com) to a Mac and putting up a few illustrated walls.
Using a devilish head as a personal icon, Carroll ventures out of his domain into the main Palace graphical site, which looks like a maze of illustrated parlors and living rooms, and begins littering the lobby with the House of Heat insignia, all of which he imported from Photoshop. "Within less than a minute, those will be gone," Carroll points out. "As soon as you let people make these things, it's like virtual accessories-you get people collecting branded products."
These avatar-inhabited virtual worlds will soon complement or in some cases replace Web sites as a richer multimedia medium. The possibilities for advertising, in a world that experts say is infinitely more programmable than HTML and where a virtual store could be staffed with animated sales clerks to assist you personally onscreen, are also exhaustive. The first avatar-inhabited worlds were actually colonized in the late '80s as graphical evolutions of MUDs, text-only environments in which people interact and take part in ongoing impromptu dramas. According to Electric Communities, which oversees the development of online habitats (www.communities.com), the first avatar environment was developed in 1985 by LucasFilm creatives Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar.
Compared to Web sites, which are usually text based, virtual environments allow you to move through various graphical worlds represented by an illustrated or photographic icon. Depending on the program, you can have your avatar burp, gesture, whisper, even pull pranks on other avatars by clicking icons or keying in commands. Wander into a room that looks like a Clue board game study and you can sit down to a checkers game and actually play a game with another avatar.
This year these virtual worlds are hitting their stride, with an abundance of beta versions on the market. Consider that since last year 80,000 people have downloaded the 3-D environment AlphaWorld from Worlds Inc., in San Francisco (www.worlds.net), and upwards of 90,000 people have downloaded Time Warner's The Palace, which enables them to explore one of the thousands of existing Palace environments, which range from the commercially-sponsored Fox Commissary, an entertainment forum, to the idiosyncratic Pet Palace or Abyss, which gleefully courts users with the line: "Welcome to my own personal hell."
Available free or for a small cost on the Web, the software generally falls into one of two categories: virtual chat, or multimedia chat, where the emphasis is on human interaction.
In these environments, people can usually design their own avatars or choose from a sampling of avatars supplied for them, choosing the one that most matches their personality. And then there are virtual worlds, in which the focus is on the exploration of 2-D or 3-D environments; users can often create their own avatars and sometimes their own surroundings, collect things and even leave things behind, like Carroll's experiments in The Palace. Conversations usually occur through balloons that appear over avatar's heads.
"What's interesting to me is that every one of them is different," says Linda Stone, leader of the Microsoft team that developed V-Chat, a 2-D environment available on the Microsoft Network, which had 150 avatars registered on its system in the first 24 hours of existence, and is getting ready to launch the system Webwide later this year. Interpersonal communication and accessibility are the main tenets of V-Chat, Stone explains, one of the reasons why human gestures are articulated with such specificity: each avatar can be created with up to 20 different expressions, made with V-Chat's tool kit or with multiple self-portraits scanned and uploaded on MSN by a local Kodak dealer.
"I think one of the reasons people get online is that they want a form of self-expression," Stone says. Buttressed by figures that show 40 percent of all online time is spent in chat rooms, she reasons that the more time people spend online, the more they'll be concerned with their appearances there.
Of course, advertising will be a part of these worlds, she says. "I think one of the things that's missing online is a point of view and a cultural context," Stone adds, explaining how V-Chat has tried to plant ads that add clarity and reality to the "cacophony of information" online. For instance, in Cinemania, V-chat's ornate movie theater where people chat about the industry, movie posters line the lobby, exactly where people expect them to be. Click on one of these ads to find out more about the movie and you're transported to the film company's Web site.
Links to Web sites are just the start of it. Over at The Leap Partnership's House of Heat (Carroll asserts it's not an evil place; it's named after a heating company in Chicago whose name struck him as funny, and his online persona is really just a red head named Mantis), Rich Giuliani, a creative partner overseeing the agency's new-media efforts, is explaining how they've studied the behavior of people who inhabit these online communities to prepare their clients, which include U.S. Robotics, the University of Notre Dame and Nike Town.
Prop placement-hats with logos and the like-is one element they're testing. "In future versions of the software, we'll be able to rate the effectiveness of the props, who picked up which prop, who's carrying what," Giuliani says. "There's also no reason why I couldn't come up with a whole line of athlete endorsers and celebrities as avatars," he suggests, which would enable people to play the part of their favorite sports hero online.
At the moment, though, it's hard to take the avatar worlds seriously for mainstream American advertising. Advertising in 3-D environments on the Internet seems even more remote. The consensus among Internet experts is that the software for 3-D worlds is clunky and difficult to program, and people find it cold and boring. In a recent voyage into AlphaWorld, a 3-D virtual environment, one could choose from less than a dozen generic avatars, which looked like expressionless Fisher-Price people gliding around an Astro-turf Flatland. But there's always exceptions. And it apparently wasn't too cold for a Tacoma couple who met in AlphaWorld in January, courted among the cone-shaped trees, met each other in person and got officially married in AlphaWorld in May.
(r)¯More sophisticated 3-D environments are found in kiosks. For instance, NTT Software, a Japanese company that's expanding into the U.S., recently launched the closest thing to real-time, full-motion video for avatars in a pilot project called Cyber Campus. With kiosks placed at a half dozen college campuses, people can tap into the worlds by bending over a kiosk screen, which projects their image into a world that contains a Tower Ý41
see-me-otics Ý29 Records store where they can shop, or they can venture through a Levi's virtual reality game.
Sean Dee, director of digital development at Levi's agency FCB/San Francisco, explains that the pilot project is a way to gather information about how consumers interact with a brand in an avatar world. "It's opening up a ton of opportunities," Dee says. Advertising on Web sites is "scary for most marketers because there's a high degree of anonymity," he adds. "In an avatar environment I think there's more accountability." When people are represented with a graphic icon rather than an obscure screen name, he says, they've found they're more likely to be responsible for their actions and less likely, for instance, to flame innocent passersby in an advertiser-sponsored chat room. The architecture in certain virtual environments is also so open-or so easy to code-that obscenities in some rooms can easily be blocked or turned to gibberish.
The fact that advertisers are demanding more accountability on the Internet is also working in favor of virtual environments, according to Mark Jeffrey, director of online ventures for the Palace Group. While the software isn't in place yet, Jeffrey says, "you'll soon be able to track things about people that you could never tell in a Web site." In future Palace software versions, he says, they'll be able to determine how long people actually looked at a particular ad, what they did there and if they picked up any branded hats or trinkets while they were there.
But how well consumers take to avatar worlds depends on how much they enjoy interacting in such an environment. Some studies show people feel uncomfortable with photorealistic avatars and prefer fantasy figures. Dee points to MTV's "Yack Live" show-in which at times appallingly idiotic chat from the MTV site on AOL runs as accompaniment to a video-as evidence that kids are keen to the idea by the way they (mis)spell things and their "customized" screen names. "There's definitely a lot of role playing going on," Dee says. "If you take the leap into avatar worlds, it'd be that much stronger."
Adults are intrigued with the idea as well, evidenced, for example, by the overwhelming response to the recent V-Chat avatar contest, which attracted about a hundred responses. And why wouldn't adults want to play the part of someone else or even a favorite ad icon, Stone muses, like the M&M man who gets to dive into a pool of chocolate. "I'd love to be one of those guys," Stone says. "You have an avatar that you want to be because it has an attitude you share." Sure, virtual advertising. It melts in your mind, not in your hand.ure sign that kids