Ever since the vision of cyberspace expressed by Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash, pioneers have dreamed of creating new virtual worlds filled with "living" beings. Some of these beings are synthetic representations of real people, known as avatars. Some of these living objects are completely synthetic - a form of artificial life. Tightly coupled with the VRML community is a project called Biota.org. Biota is an official working group of the VRML Consortium and a Special Interest Group (SIG) of the Contact Consortium. Another associated project is the Nerves proposal from the people at DigitalSpace who are trying to create a language to describe complex behaviors modeled on biological concepts.
The mission of Biota.org is "to create and deploy digital tools and environments for research and learning about living systems. These tools could range from simple genetic algorithms all the way up to entire synthetic ecosystems."
While these concepts may sound a bit "far out" even flaky, they are pushing the virtual envelope and have the participation and support of companies such as Silicon Graphics, Sun Microsystems, and Microsoft. The notion of avatars, a synthetic representation of the self, in a shared distributed virtual environment (3D chat rooms) is likely to be a driving application of the future Internet. Conferences such as the recently held Avatars 97, sponsored by the Contact Consortium, featured sessions with talks on community building, standards for avatar cyberspace, kids in digital space, and collaborative virtual laboratories.
Like any new and emerging field there's a book and an award. Avatars! by Bruce Damer published by Peachpit Press covers all the major virtual world environments such as Worlds Chat, The Palace, Comic Chat and more. The Avvy Award is presented for the avatars in the Most Realistic, Best Non-Humanoid, VRML 2.0 and a few other categories. Personally I can't wait for the day when a tearful avatar strolls down the promenade catching virtual congratulatory flowers upon winning such a prestigious award. Presently some of the environments are 2D worlds and some are 3D, all are interesting.
The technologies necessary to implement these types of distributed interoperable worlds requires serious, and hard, work. The Living Worlds working group of the VRML Consortium, and the Open Community interface specification being led by Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs, are addressing the many technical issues such as interoperability or how can I get my avatar to understand and behave correctly in your world. Time to go now but let's have my avatar talk to your avatar and let's do lunch.