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Published by: Times Publications, September 2007

When Ric Fischer was designing his avatar for the online three-dimensional world known as Second Life, he had one instruction for the woman helping him custom-create it.

“I told her to make it as tall as possible,” Fischer recalls, with a chuckle. “Why not?”

After all, as a five-foot-tall Larsen's Syndrome dwarf, Fischer had gone his entire adult life enduring the curious looks from children and the snubs from attractive women who, Fischer says, are still accustomed to dating men taller than themselves. Second Life, as the popular online world’s very name implies, offers its growing roster of users the opportunity to meet and interact with others as a being very much of one’s own creation, in the form of avatars, or customizable cartoon-like characters representing them in the virtual world.

For Fischer, creating an avatar offered a chance to replicate himself in a whole new way. Why repeat life being mistaken for an elf when he could model his physique after the hunky likeness of Disney's Sinbad, Fischer’s ultimate choice?

What Fischer wasn’t prepared for were the difficulties his character, who wound up being 7’2” in Second Life, was forced to encounter in the still somewhat buggy virtual world.

“I discovered there were spiral staircases I couldn’t climb, because my head would be bumping into the set of stairs above me,” Fischer says. “Or I’d sit down in someone’s house, and my feet would be going through the floor, because they haven’t developed the physics yet to allow knees to bend up in front of you like a basketball player’s would when sitting on a small chair.”

Still, for all his apparent gangliness, Fischer’s avatar – which he’s named Lighty Goodfellow in the Second Life realm – has been leading a life even fuller than Fischer’s own. Last August, while still learning his way around the massive 3-D environment, made up entirely of buildings and landscapes created by its more than 300,000 users (called “residents”), Fischer’s avatar ran into another by the name of Janessa Lobo (real name: Delia). Within two weeks, Lighty and Janessa were engaged, and three days later, the two married in a secret online wedding. According to Fischer, the avatars had to elope because Delia’s dad – also a Second Life addict – didn’t approve of their whirlwind romance.

Fischer admits the lines between real life and Second Life (shorthanded as “RL” and “SL” in user chats) can become seriously blurred over time. While he’s yet to physically meet Delia, who lives in Florida, the 40-year-old Phoenix single insists his now one-year marriage to his “Second Life wife” has been the most fulfilling relationship he’s known.

“She’s the love of my life,” he says, with all sincerity.

In many ways, Ric and Delia’s online life seems pretty real. Using the platform’s building tools, the two have crafted a beautiful dream house on an island – which Fischer pays real monthly rent on, using virtual dollars purchased with actual U.S. currency. Last August 28th, after smoothing things out with Janessa’s online dad (and presumably Delia’s real life pater), Lighty and Janessa even made it legal – in a sense – enlisting the services of a professional SL wedding planner, whom Fischer paid $30,000 in Second Life currency (roughly $75 in actual money), for a lavish online wedding complete with digital waterfalls and ice sculptures.

“Our biggest fear was that Janessa would vanish during the wedding, because her Internet connection is not as fast as mine,” Fischer says. “Sure enough, just after we were proclaimed husband and wife, and were about to turn around and go back down the aisle, she ‘poofed’ – which is what they call it when people disappear.”

Fortunately, Fischer’s runaway bride reappeared after a frantic re-start of her Second Life program, well in time for the reception, attended by all the couple’s SL pals.

As for the honeymoon? “We didn’t really go anywhere special,” Fischer recalls. “But you don’t have to in Second Life. Because everywhere you go can be so idyllic. It’s like living in paradise every day.”

Not a game

Brent Schlenker is running a little late for his Thursday morning meeting. While a trio of business executives sit motionlessly around a stark conference table in an immaculately decorated second-story conference room, Schlenker e-mails the meeting organizer that he’s having a little trouble finding the building. The leader graciously offers to “teleport” him there – and in an instant, Schlenker is seated on one of the polished aluminum chairs, appearing as if by magic.

In reality – or, more accurately, virtual reality – Schlenker is appearing by avatar, as a sharply-dressed hipster in black framed specs, a half-unbuttoned black dress shirt and tilted grey beret.

For a second, the dude looks like a lady, with an overly shapely torso and long, dark hair. But Schlenker has a good excuse for showing up in drag: “I’m still editing my appearance,” he types, his words appearing in a chat window at the bottom of the screen as his avatar quickly morphs into a bald, more masculine image.

As the Phoenix-based representative of the eLearning Guild, an international trade group of small businesses utilizing some form of online training in their organizations, Schlenker has seen more and more businesses turning to the Web to train and educate their employees, and believes 3-D worlds like Second Life, where he’s meeting today, represent the next phase in corporate conferencing.

“Everybody in corporate training, online education and distance learning is already using a variety of tools to conduct work online,” he says. “But now, instead of going into an online meeting application like WebEx or GoToMeeting and seeing just a chat window and hearing some audio, you’ll go into a conference room setting like this and interact in a 3-D environment. It’s not just SIM City anymore.”

Montse and David Anderson, married techies represented by avatars seated at opposite ends of the virtual conference table, agree. The downtown Phoenix couple recently launched a start-up called It’s Oque, which they describe as a “virtual world content developer” designed to help companies create their own presence in Second Life. Think Web site design for the new 3-D world.

“Interacting in Second Life doesn’t take the place of actually being there,” says David, while his avatar pulls up a PowerPoint-like slide show on a mock projection screen. “But there are plenty of times you can’t physically be somewhere for a meeting, and can send your avatar instead.”

Indeed, the three imagine a time in the near future when our online avatars will be going more places and meeting more people than our physical beings. For that, Schlenker says, it’s important that we pour some thought into creating proper representations of ourselves in the virtual world.

“It’s not just this object,” he says. “It’s a representation of the person on the other side who’s controlling it. It becomes your personal brand.”

Schlenker knows of some virtual space users who create different avatars for different online activities. “They’ll have one account they’ll use when their being good, and another with a whole different look for when they’re being bad” – opportunities for which abound in Second Life. Residents can buy “naked” skins for their avatars and action scripts for obscene acts, all sold by enterprising users of the software (not the developer itself).

Inevitably though, Schlenker says, everything one’s avatar does eventually catches up with the user.

“The line between who you are online and who you are in the real world is becoming much thinner – especially now that we have these 3-D representations of ourselves,” he says. “Whether you’re trying to find a job, a relationship, or sell yourself as an entrepreneur, your avatar really becomes a reflection of you as a person. And you don’t want that personal brand to be tainted by inappropriate words or behaviors. Just like in real life, it’s important that we dress appropriately, and act and behave nicely in these virtual spaces.”

Looks matter

While the Internet may have originally held the promise of an interactive space where no one is judged on their physical appearance, the growing popularity of avatars has bizarrely made looks once again important.

No, it still doesn’t matter how you look behind the keyboard. But better check the hair on your avatar before taking a stroll in that virtual mall.

“Bad hair is the first clue that you really don’t know what you’re doing in Second Life,” says Ric Fischer, who, rather than pick one of the standard hairstyles offered for free in the application’s appearance generator, paid real money at a virtual hair boutique in SL to have custom locks crafted for his well-tanned, muscular avatar.

“In Second Life, more so than probably real life, how you look may be a big determining factor in getting people to interact with you. You’ve got to have a good body, good skin and good hair if you want to meet people.”

Already, Fischer is an expert on where to shop in Second Life, using Linden dollars, the virtual currency bought with actual dollars that has created a real economy in the digital world. Last year, Second Life’s developer, Linden Lab, estimated over 17,000 residents were earning money in the world, with about 450 generating more than $1,000 a month in real U.S. dollars. Most of those dollars are made selling virtual clothing, toys and home furnishings for the avatars themselves.

Like natural good looks, however, all the time and money one invests in prettying up their avatar can be fleeting – as Fischer and his Second Life wife found out last year, when both of their accounts were suspended for ten days as part of Linden’s attempt to block a series of stolen credit card numbers theirs were erroneously included in.

“It took some intervention from other account holders to get us back on, but by then, we had lost our drive,” Fischer laments. “It was so disheartening. Janessa and I had built up a real kind of life in there that we could no longer get to.”

By then, the virtual couple had gotten into World of Warcraft, the massively multiplayer online game where players also create avatars, albeit ones based more on fantasy and epic battle roles.

This time around, Fischer worked on developing an avatar that, he says, was more “a true reflection, in personality, as my real self.” He looked for a character that, like him, was chivalrous, honorable and righteous.

His choice?

“A dwarf Paladin,” Fischer laughs. “Of course!”

”–

 
Photos by Hector Acuna

Brent Schlenker, who watches his Second Life develop on his big screen, foresees wide commercial use of these new virtual environments.

Brent Schlenker's avatar in Second Life.

Montse and David Anderson can attend a presentation meeting in London while sipping coffee in the heart of the Valley.

Montse and David Anderson's avatars are ever-ready for their next assignment.

Already, millions of people live multiple lives vicariously through their avatars.

As technologies improve, so will the detail and sophistication of virtual environments. In the red shirt, the author sits in for an interview.

The NASA Museum offers a glimpse of the potential for education and commerce in a virtual, open 24-7 environment.