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Start From Avatars to Virtual Beings
06 February 2023

From Avatars to Virtual Beings

Estimated reading time Time 4 to read

Avatars are widely known today as a graphical representation of a user. The term originates from Hinduism and can be translated as “descent”, an incarnation of a god or spirit. [1] Science fiction author Philip K. Dick took this idea in the 1970s for his eight-year search to understand the mystery of the universe, later published as “The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick”, where he resumed: “We are all sleeping avatars of God, with amnesia.” [2]

The avatar’s actual meaning is based on the game designer Richard Garriott. In the 1980s, he became famous as “Lord British” and creator of the open world fantasy roleplay game series Ultima. Chapter one had been released in 1981, and in total the series sold over 2 million copies. Garriott introduced the term “avatar” in today’s computer-related meaning for the 1985 chapter “Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.” The idea was inspired by Hinduism, as the computer player had the task to control the avatar and bring him or her into contact with the various virtues to receive at the end the “Codex of Ultimate Wisdom”. Before the task, the player had the possibility to choose name, race (human, elf, dwarf, etc.), gender and other details of the outer appearance. In the earlier Ultima III, the character was still not named Avatar, also as the story had a much darker tone, but interesting, here for a first time, the player could not only choose between “male” and “female” but had with “other” a third option.

Aligning today’s meaning with Philip K. Dick, a human body may be interpreted as a physical representation to the human’s mind (as for example in the movie “Avatar”), including its values, attitudes, knowledge, and wisdom. This is necessary, as without the body we could not access all this, nor interact with it. Of course, without the body, the mind and insights would not even exist.

BBVA-OpenMind-PAtrick Henz-Richard_Garriott_GDC_2018
The avatar’s actual meaning is based on the game designer Richard Garriott. Credit: Wikimedia

As a child, Garriott’s first dream job was becoming an astronaut like his father. Already in 1979, he programmed with “Akalabeth: World of Doom” the first computer roleplay game and gained an impressive 150,000 USD in revenue. With further Ultima games and co-founding a video game publishing company, Garriott created a bigger fortune, which enabled him to fulfill his childhood dream and fly in 2007 as a space tourist to the International Space Station. At this trip, he smuggled a portion of the later James Doohan’s ashes to the station, which he placed there. The actor had been famous for his role of Montgomery Scott in classic Star Trek. [3] Lord British’s life may sound somehow familiar, his biography inspired author Ernest Cline for the fictive millionaire in his book “Ready Player One.” [4]

In roleplay games like Ultima, user controlled avatars are the heart of the Virtual Reality platform. As everywhere, also outside gaming, humans play a role, for example being the child, the spouse, the student, the employee and so on, it is a logical step to evolve roleplay platforms into social media and meeting platforms.

If we combine the avatar with Artificial Intelligence, we get a Virtual Being. Such a concept can act autonomously inside a virtual platform, but also be a hybrid, enhancing a user controlled avatar. [5] To present avatars realistically, it must include non-conscious movements like the blink of an eye or a more conscious habit like the impatient tipping of a foot. Again, animations which also had been used for early roleplay and adventure games (for example “Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis”). If a virtual platform has a relevant level of information about the user, the avatar may act semi-autonomously, like executing smaller tasks on the platform or even reaching out into the physical world. The last could include scheduling of appointments or even participating in online meetings.

The more information the platform has about the user, the more realistic the avatar can act autonomously, including continuing being active, while the user is disconnected. To enable this, there must be a Personal Digital Twin in the Cloud, not only including data like outer appearance, likes and dislikes, but also information and knowledge to predict behavior depending on the situation, which can be executed as a script by the Virtual Being. The better the prediction, the more difficult it is to distinguish the Virtual Being from the user controlled avatar.

Los defensores del metaverso subrayan su infinitas posibilidades en relación a las interacciones sociales, el entretenimiento o en el ámbito empresarial. Crédito: Meta
The more information the platform has about the user, the more realistic the avatar can act autonomously, including continuing being active, while the user is disconnected. Credit: Meta

Ultimately, a Virtual Being does not have to be based on a human original. Using synthetic data, a VR platform can be the home for numerous Virtual Beings, non-distinguishable from avatars. Such creates may be required to ensure that human users find the expected number of potential contacts on the platform.

Back to Philip K. Dick, his 1967 novel “Counter-Clock World” focused on religious thoughts and played with the idea that the deceased come back from their graves and life a second life backwards. [6] Nevertheless, he included an interesting detail, a human having a robot copy, able to act independently, just as described here as Virtual Being inside cyberspace. Generation Alpha (born approx. 2015-2025) can grow up with avatars and Virtual Beings. Accordingly, a (semi-) autonomously copy can be perceived as a natural part of themselves, just as today the omnipresent smartphone. This is an evolution from today’s voice assistants. A Virtual Being can evolve from an avatar, as with observed behavior the platform can assume underlying knowledge and attitudes.

This leads to the question of ownership, especially after a user would leave the platform. Relevant for the companies, after an employee leaving the organization, to work for another company or retire, would their Virtual Being be allowed to stay on a potential company platform? A question which Philip K. Dick also raised in his book, as the “old-born” not had been the responsibility of their children or other family members, but owned by the companies who dig them out, which then sold them to the highest bidders. A lucrative business, especially if the “old-born” is somebody famous.

So far, we discuss this topic only for virtual platforms, but in future, the same algorithms not only could control a virtual character, but also a robot. In 2011, Hanson Robotics created their second Philip K. Dick android, based on the author´s outer appearance, knowledge, and ideas; his physical representation. [7] We are living in fascinating times!

Patrick Henz


[1] Lochtefeld, James (2002): “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism”

[2] Dick, Philip K. / Jackson, Pamela / Lethem, Jonathan (2011): “The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick”

[3] Goddard, Jacqui (2020): “Ashes of Star Trek’s Scotty smuggled on to the International Space Station” 

[4] Cline, Ernest (2011): “Ready Player One”

[5] Henz, Patrick (2022): “The Psychological Impact of the Metaverse

[6] Dick, Philip K. (1967): “Counter-Clock World”

[7] Hanson Robotics / Philip K. Dick Research Robot (fetched 03.12.2022)


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