What is an Avatar?

The term avatar is a continually evolving word that, for many people, symbolizes much of the promise and potential of technology and modern communications. The original meaning of avatar comes from Sanskrit, in which avatar refers to a deity or soul that becomes an incarnated form on earth.

Although the term avatar is from  Hindu Sanskrit, the concept of avatars are present in other religions. In Greek mythology, for example, Zeus and other gods often came to earth and took human form. Many Christian gnostics also looked at Jesus Christ as an avatar, never truly human. This belief was so contrary to Christian church teachings that it was quickly deemed a heresy.

The popular usage of the term avatar today reverses the incarnation process in that it is incarnate humans who are using non-incarnate avatars in a virtual world; and the future application of avatars looks to become even more complex.

Avatars for humans

On the world wide web, an  avatar typically refers to a graphical representation of an individual or entity. Avatars of an individual’s head, face or body are often used in many forums, blogs, online communities and social media sites as alternatives to a photograph. These two-dimensional avatars often resemble cartoon representations or drawings of a person’s photo.

Avatars are also used in online virtual worlds (such as Second Life) or digital role-playing games. These avatars may be three-dimensional and are often representations of how users see themselves — or representations of how users would like to be seen.

Avatars for artificial intelligence

The continued evolution of artificial intelligence is also giving rise to a different form of avatar: the agent or face of the artificial intelligence. For example, humans interacting with an information desk powered by artificial intelligence may find themselves conversing through an avatar of the program’s artificial intelligence.

That avatar could be disembodied (such as a two- or three-dimensional image on a screen) or embodied (as with a robot speaking for the artificial intelligence. In this case, the embodied form is often removed altogether from the definition of avatar.


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