The Avatars Among Us

What is the highest grossing movie of all time?

Perhaps it’s a classic film, such as Gone With The Wind or Casablanca. Or a great Broadway musical extravaganza, like West Side Story or The Sound of Music. Or a sweeping historical drama, like Lawrence of Arabia or Titanic.

Until last week, you actually would have been correct if you had guessed Titanic. However, on Monday, James Cameron’s epic tragedy of the unsinkable ocean liner was itself torpedoed by another Cameron film.

From Titanic to Avatar

That’s right; the highest grossing film of all time is now Avatar, the futuristic adventure of a man who uses a virtual reality system to fight a war on a distant planet. It’s a far cry from Titanic, a period piece set in 1912 that replicated an actual historical event with a flair for social and technological realism.

And yet, even though Avatar is now the box office champ on a “money earned” basis, it isn’t now (and may never become) the top selling film on a “tickets sold” basis. That’s because the prices charged for 3-D and other Imax films today are far higher than those charged just a decade ago. And fans of film classics rightfully note that it’s impossible to compare the ticket sales of modern blockbusters with those of early twentieth century cinema because the population of the United States has grown so much since then.

Nevertheless, the receipts of Cameron’s latest film are truly impressive. Avatar’s legions of fans, though, may not be aware that avatars are already walking among us, here on Planet Earth.

Walking, Talking … and Flying

Facebook users refer to their tiny photographs, the ones that appear next to their postings on the web pages of their friends, as their avatars. And, in a sense, their use of the word avatar is indeed a legitimate one; after all, those images are online representations of their own personalities.

But James Cameron’s avatars are obviously far more evocative than tiny photographs. His avatars are not simply projected onto Facebook pages; they are, instead, projected across galaxies onto distant planets. And they are not simply composed of static photographic images; rather, they are animated characters that can walk, talk … even fly.

Unfortunately, we on Earth do not yet possess the ability to befriend creatures across the galaxy and send avatars to visit them. Nevertheless, avatars today are being employed across the internet to visit people in every corner of the globe.

Across The Generations

As is true with many breakthrough communication technologies, avatar focused systems were first adopted by children and teenagers, and only later were discovered by parents and other adult users.  Disney’s Club Penguin, for instance, and Ganz’s Webkinz are trailblazers in children’s entertainment; they invite young people to adopt animal themed avatars, and to interact with each other in a virtual online environment. And video game vendors such as Sony and Microsoft maintain online gaming platforms for their customers, services that invite preteens and teenagers to engage each other through avatars.

Adults in the professional and business markets are also active users of avatar based virtual worlds. The authors of this online column, for instance, are frequent attendees and presenters of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) sessions for Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) in a virtual reality system named Second Life; these sessions are free and open to the public, underwritten by the Maryland Association of CPA‘s Business Learning Institute (BLI). And a wide range of business and academic avatars in Second Life are featured on the internet television network Treet TV Business, in shows produced by Cisco, Nokia, ISTE Eduverse, and other organizations.

The Future is Now!

Not all of these systems require users to consort with bright blue Pandorans, talking penguins, and refugees of futuristic Armageddons. Most BLI education sessions, for instance, are taught by avatars in solid blue suits and crisp white shirts … as if they simply step out of real world business seminars and pass through Alice’s magical looking glass into the virtual milieu. And avatars who inhabit the Cisco and Nokia worlds of Treet TV tend to sport the smart business casual attire of their Silicon Valley and Scandinavian counterparts.

In other words, the avatar populations of today’s virtual worlds generally reflect the full diversity of their creators in our real worlds, i.e. the people around the globe who feel the urge to travel to distant lands and interact with people from different cultures. James Cameron may have extended this concept to a fantastical trans-galactic future, but there are avatars now among us who are doing so on Earth today.