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Project combines avatars and robots to allow visiting of museums with surpris-
ing results.The scenarios that follow trace the uses of avatars from home television sets to
mobile devices and out into the wider world. It is expected that avatar and agent technologies
will develop further with an increasing emphasis on interface quality.The development of
virtual museums together with the possibilities for mixing agent and avatar technologies with
innovations in the haptics field has attracted the attention of cultural heritage organisations.
A n I n t ro d u c t i o n t o t h e Te c h n o l o g y
In computer-generated virtual environments, an avatar is a representation of a human
user.The word is of Sanskrit origin and means `descent'.The first avatars were developed
in 1985 when Chip Morningstar and Randall Farmer at Lucasfilm created Habitat, a
virtual town with two-dimensional cartoon representations of users. It is an understatement
to say that the technologies used for producing and controlling avatars have come a long
way since the Commodore 64 computers and dial-up modems of 1985.
The use of the term `avatar' can be quite vague, since avatars are not the only inhabitants
of virtual environments.The term is sometimes used incorrectly for agents or bots, which
are representations of computer processes or programs, and may be represented in the
form of a human or some other creature.We use the term avatar to mean a user's person-
ification in a virtual or online environment, and agent to denote the representation of a
computer procedure. Both concepts have much in common in the methods used to
develop the virtual creatures and to make them `live' in the virtual world.
The applications of avatar and agent technologies to virtual environments and leisure
activities such as games are pervasive. In the twenty years or so that avatars have existed,
they have also attracted a strong interest with their ability to enforce the social compo-
nents of using of a computer system.They are now used to enhance systems providing
governmental information, and multinational corporations use them to create a sense of
the `global office'. Specialists in the fields of psychology and social sciences have also
turned their attention towards avatar communities.The problems of their design and
functionality matched to conventional forms of human contact are being debated. In the
future, this technology is expected to become actively used in electronic programming
guides (EPGs) for digital television and Home Media Services (HMSs). Applications of
these types allow users to select their entertainment schedule interactively, and (it is
assumed) in a more light-hearted and fun manner.
Where the Technology is Currently Found
Avatars continue to be created to inhabit virtual worlds.The uses to which they have
been put in recent years have become increasingly varied. For instance, avatars are now
deployed in environments where the sense of presence of other users, or of computer
applications, is considered beneficial.They have proved useful in cases where input from a
number of users has to be supplied, especially time-critical activities, where other forms of
guidance might lead to frustration or where a lack of intuitive control may confuse users.
In activities such as customer support for business users, or information provision for
citizens by local governments, agents could lead to a reduction in the expenses associated
with employing and training staff, and also in communication costs when the customer
Cultural Agents
and Avatars
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