Co-founder Masjien, MUTANI and Web32
November 2, 2023
Avatars are more than toys for children. They are increasingly being developed into powerful digital tools.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘avatar’? The blue creatures from James Cameron’s science fiction films? Or maybe you’re thinking of Aang, the bald character from the Nickelodeon series “Avatar.” Or are you thinking of avatar lookalikes on Instagram for your stories or rather of game characters?
Just 38 years ago, ‘avatar’ had only a spiritual meaning. The Sanskrit word ‘avatar’ literally means ‘the descending one’, referring to incarnations of divine beings in human or animal form that bring peace and balance. That changed in 1985 with the computer game ‘Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar’ or with the cyberpunk novel ‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson. The creations in the game and the novel radiate less peace and balance.
This year, 16,800 research articles were published on avatars. These studies range from the best technological developments to the impact and psychology behind them. Technological evolution is happening quickly, our society and regulations are still lagging behind.
Avatars are evolving into powerful digital tools, adaptable and versatile, present in online worlds and marketing strategies. Some of the best-known avatars are virtual influencers such as Lil Miquela and Imma, the product of marketing teams. Also consider the rapper Travis Scott, whose virtual concert in the online game ‘Fortnite’ reached more than 27 million visitors and generated millions in digital merchandise.
Creating an avatar should be as important a step as the birth of a child and should not be reduced to clicking a few buttons.
Researcher and designer
There is a shift from role-playing games coordinated by filmmakers and game developers to applications in the metaverse in which users exercise much more initiative. Users create their own impact, and that can have both positive and negative consequences. We are at the dawn of a new era where assuming multiple identities and conversing with AI friends could become the norm. “Creating an avatar should be as important a step as the birth of a child and should not be reduced to clicking a few buttons,” writes researcher Heera Shin. I think awareness is urgently needed.
At the same time, there are everyday applications that give me aha experiences. Consider the use of avatars to optimize e-commerce, such as the start-up Lalaland. This allows the creation of clothing models with AI and a very inclusive approach based on numerous body types. Better visualization can lead to better choices, more sales and fewer returned products.
Artificial intelligence is accelerating the development of avatars today. The film ‘Her’, which won an Oscar in 2013 with a story about a man who develops feelings for his virtual assistant with a female voice, seemed to show a distant future ten years ago. ‘Be Right Back’, the best episode of the ‘Black Mirror’ series, depicts the next variant of an avatar: a deceased person who is virtually brought back to life. The ‘digital descendant’ is ready for a new chapter with its digital identity. Here I would like to suggest possible new references for the word ‘avatar’, beyond the blue mythical creatures.
Ann Claes is a Fashion & Tech entrepreneur at Masjien and the co-founder of MUTANI & WEB32.