I love avatars and 3D, and I am fascinated by ActiveWorlds and Second Life.  So how could I not flip over this article by Mark Wallace at 3pointD.com.  He discusses not only those topics, but identity as well:

This was going to be a brief post about some new features of the ActiveWorlds software that was just released, but it turned into a longer contemplation of how the 3D Internet will work once many, many more of us have a presence in such online spaces.

Chris from SWCity, a community in ActiveWorlds that I’ve been meaning to visit ever since I blogged it back in April (sorry, guys!), sends news that AW recently released a preliminary build of the new Version 4.1 of its software. I don’t spend a lot of time in ActiveWorlds so I can’t say how much better this is than the last version, but a couple of things jump out at me from the release notes that are notable or at least cool-sounding — including a kind of identity portability. And some of it seems to point, in a platform-agnostic way, to what would seem to be the future of 3D spaces on the Internet. But first the new AW stuff:

• AW now has particle objects. De rigeur for Second Life, but will be big new fun for AW residents.

• New objects called “movers” can be used to make vehicles. Again, old hat for SL, though perhaps AW will actually do this better. SL’s vehicles mostly suck.

• (This sounds very cool:) “Users may define zone objects, which can be used to define a 3d spatial volume where the normal world properties are replaced or changed.” Anti-gravity plot, anyone?

Plus the ability to slide downhill, handy-sounding interface features, and native voice support. But one of the most intriguing additions to AW 4.1 is the following:

• “Personal Avatars allow you to take a unique avatar to almost any world.”

Unlike Second Life or There.com, in which practically all the land masses of the virtual world exist on the same map, accessible as a single “login space” (i.e., one login gives you access to any region of the world), ActiveWorlds exists as a series of discrete, disconnected spaces — including 3D home pages — that are accessed from a central hub. But you don’t always get to take the work you’ve done on your avatar from one to the next, forcing you to re-tweak and/or remodel who you are for each separate world. The Personal Avatar feature should let you bring your “self” from one world to the next with little trouble.

This kind of thing points the way forward for virtual worlds, if you ask me. Second Life is a unique community; it’s the America of virtual worlds, a land of opportunity and a melting pot of different people and peoples, all tossed into the mix in a big beautiful jumble. (What does that make There.com? The Caribbean of virtual worlds? The California?) But I’d argue that the one-world model of SL is a temporary condition, something that will become a smaller subset of a larger picture as individuals gain more and more power to create their own 3D online spaces.

I’d bet things are headed toward a more distributed metaverse, one in which you can create your own little 3D online corner of the Internet that doesn’t exist on any 2D map aggregating such spaces. (There will continue to be 2D Web pages as well, of course.) You’ll still be able to travel from one to the next, but it will be more like traveling from one Web page to another; you won’t necessarily be able to walk next door to visit the neighbors.

Contiguous 3D spaces won’t disappear altogether under the distributed metaverse model. Groups of people will band together into loose confederacies of interest and community and create larger spaces that will exist on their own 2D maps. But there will eventually be too many people on the 3D Internet to make it feasible to manage them all through a visual interface. Imagine if you had to use a 2D map to navigate through or even look at the 11 billion Web pages that are out there. Impossible. Even 1 million such locations isn’t practical to represent that way. Larger contiguous communities will still exist, but you’ll still need an information-based way to navigate between these.

And you won’t want to show up at each new 3D homepage or in each community looking like a newb. This is already a problem on the Web, where we have to create a new username and password for any site we visit that offers more than just something to browse (which is why Kim Cameron at Microsoft and many other people are working on a solution to this). I just counted 46 logins I use on a semi-regular basis, and there are probably a couple dozen more than I use less frequently. I’m probably something of an outlier, but even having just a Netflix, Amazon, Gmail, iTunes, Second Life (or ActiveWorlds) and World of Warcraft login is starting to be too much. Can I really expect all my online friends and associates to reside (as far as their online “lives” go) in the same 3D world? Already I know people in almost a dozen 3D worlds, and that number will only rise as time passes. While I see no problem with donning a world-specific avatar for playing World of Warcraft or EVE Online, it just doesn’t make sense to switch visual identities, reputation, account information and inventory each time I want to visit a different social or commercial or otherwise utilitarian world — just as it doesn’t make sense that I have almost 100 login handles for using the Web.

Which is where ActiveWorlds’ Personal Avatars come in. I can’t tell you which 3D technology is going to become dominant, whether its AW’s, SL’s, There’s, Multiverse’s or one that’s yet to emerge. But whatever it is (or whatever set of such technologies, more likely), we’ll want a way to navigate between them more seamlessly than we can navigate between even 2D Web sites today. I think the nicest way to do this would be to develop some kind of protocol, either for 3D sites themselves or for portability of avatars and identity, just as an “identity metasystem” is being contemplated now. And this is just what ActiveWorlds’ Personal Avatars are for the spaces that run on that platform.

Just as TCP/IP helps connect the otherwise incompatible networks that make up the Internet, something will one day connect the otherwise incompatible worlds that make up the metaverse. AW’s Personal Avatars are only the earliest manifestation of this kind of thing. It’s quite a bit further off than right around the corner, but it’s not too early to serve up as food for thought. Bon appetit!

I first started to believe in the inevitability of avatars at a super-hip conference organized by Jerry Michalski and Ester Dyson somewhere back in the 1990’s.  Maybe it was Doc who got me invited.  Anyway, there were a bunch of smart web innovators there, including some pretty cool guys with a web browser that had a “magic carpet”.  

It turned out there were legions of subscribers who rode these magic carpets together on tours that went site-crawling using avatars that looked like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean and other sex symbols of various sorts.  The system's inventor showed me how to create a magic carpet of my own.  Incredibly, a gaggle of avatars lept onto my carpet within a few seconds. 

My friend said, “Now just type in the name of your web site, and the magic carpet will take everyone to it.”

I said, “Really?”  The realization of what was about to happen suddenly hit me.  I didn't actually want to, but since everyone was waiting I typed my URL, which pointed to a web site all about identity and metadirectory technology.

Then the avatars all started to scream and burp and jump off the carpet as fast as their legs – those that had legs – would take them.  It was kind of symbolic.

Identity was really a niche thing in the 90’s.  I thought it would probably take a decade to make it into the same paragraph as an avatar.

And I guess it did.