Virtual beings have journeyed a long way, from early conceptualizations to the integral components of the digital realm that they are today. This essay traces the metamorphosis of these digital entities over nearly three decades, exploring their growth from mere mentions in scholarly papers to their widespread integration in apps, games, and platforms.
In the early 1990s, the relationship between “virtual beings” and “artificial intelligence” was established by Hilary McLellan in a scholarly publication. This marked a seminal moment in the intellectual understanding of virtual beings — not just as digital avatars, but as entities powered by artificial intelligence. These were not merely animations; they were meant to be intelligent, interactive, and possibly even sentient.
The mid-1990s ushered in a digital media revolution. With the birth of the graphical Web through the NCSA Mosaic release, a global platform for the proliferation of digital content emerged. Subsequently, the inception of Gesture Jack, the first embodied conversation agent system, demonstrated the potential for interactive, AI-driven digital entities. This period hinted at a future where AI could take shape and form, converse, and interact in real-time.
Moving into the late 1990s, the commercial potential of virtual beings became evident. Nintendo’s Mii allowed users to create avatars, offering a glimpse of the personalization that would become central to the virtual being industry. Simultaneously, companies like Virtual Personalities, Inc. highlighted the commercial interest in the virtual being space, signaling a shift from experimental designs to marketable products.
The early 2000s was marked by the rise of virtual societies and worlds. Second Life, a fully realized digital universe, allowed users to craft identities, form communities, and live vicarious digital lives. Publications from this period, such as “Virtual Humans,” showed a growing understanding of the intricacies of these beings, not just as commercial entities, but as subjects worthy of academic study and reflection.
As we entered the late 2000s, the applications of virtual beings diversified. Ann Greenberg’s sceneplay.com, USC ICT Ada, and Grace Museum Guides, and the ambitious Project Milo showcased the versatility of virtual beings, extending their reach from entertainment platforms to educational and artistic ventures.
By the late 2010s, technology had advanced exponentially, allowing for more sophisticated representations of virtual beings. With companies like wolf3d.io pushing the boundaries, the visual and interactive fidelity of these entities reached new heights. The establishment of communities like the Virtual Beings Facebook group and events like the Virtual Beings Summit highlighted the establishment of a dedicated, passionate community.
The final leap into the 2020s saw the convergence of virtual beings with other digital trends. The mention of NFTs in relation to virtual beings exemplified this convergence, suggesting that virtual beings weren’t just interactive entities but also unique digital assets with tangible value. The rapid integration of platforms like readyplayer.me into hundreds of companies underlined the widespread commercial acceptance of virtual avatars.
In conclusion, the evolution of virtual beings encapsulates the broader narrative of our digital age. From their initial conceptualizations in the early ’90s, these entities have mirrored our growing ambition, technological prowess, and desire for personalization in the digital realm. As we stand on the threshold of an era where virtual beings are poised to become even more integral to our digital experiences, it’s fascinating to look back at their humble beginnings and anticipate what the future might hold for them.