By now most people with an interest in Virtual Worlds, avatars, gaming or Microsoft Kinect will have seen the Avatar Kinect announcement:

The key interesting techy feature here is the ability of Kinect to track not only your body movements but also your facial expression and translate those into movements and expressions of your avatar. This kind of technology available for commodity pricing is very exciting and of course has spawned a massive Kinect 'hacking' community creating ways to use the Kinect with PCs. Simple control of Virtual Worlds viewers and 3D games can be hooked up easily by mapping body movements to keyboard combinations. However the key thing for the whole immersive environments industry is that it could help make the use of 3D realtime animated avatars a more widely accepted normal way to interact.

Which begs the question that comes so often - why use avatars and shared artificial 3D spaces at all? In an interview for the book "Virtual Body Language", Bruce Damer, one of the earlest pioneers in Virtual Worlds with over 15 years 'avatar' experience was asked about the difference between video chat such as Skype and 'avatar' chat in a virtual environment - his reply perfectly reflects my feelings:

"Avatar chat places you in an interstitial place, a world between you and those who you are interacting with. Video chat very much anchors you in the place you are in real life. So they are really two different media altogether..."

I recommend reading the whole interview.

If there are just two of you, I'd suggest avatars and 3D immersive virtual environments won't do much to add to the experience you can get from the telephone or a video conference, unless you have inhibitions about your appearance or your speaking voice. However as soon as you have several people involved, as I've written before, most people find that a telephone conference or a wall of web camera images simply doesn't make them feel 'together' with their colleagues.

Once you have a 3D space, it is psychologically essential for there to be some representation of you, some avatar, in that space visible to others. 3D spaces without avatars can be useful when you just want to explore a 3D space alone but to socialise and collaborate, some avatar is needed. The question of whether the avatar should be made to look exactly like you or even be a realtime 3D scan of you, something the Kinect is also showing some promise for, is another discussion for another day, but I think shared 3D spaces are the ultimate way to be together while apart. Is the avatar era finally upon us?