Avatars: Engineer the perfect digital you

More and more social-networking services offer ways to digitally re-create yourself online. Find the best avatar builders for making yourself over <i>South Park</i>-style or in 3D.

In the cyberworld, Web customization is king--just as the millions of user-centric YouTube videos and MySpace Web pages attest. It's little wonder, then, that avatars, digital representations of you, are growing in function and form.

This collection of downloadable and Web-based avatar generators ranges from the more cartoon-like engines to three-dimensional architectures where users give life to their pint-size replicates. Be sure to tune into the video and photo gallery on my adventures with avatars, with CNET News.com's Neha Tiwari, for a personal take on the highlights and lowlights of some popular avatar builders.

Yahoo Messenger avatar

Yahoo Messenger
Application: Downloadable IM icon
Pros: Wide variety of outfits, backgrounds, props
Cons: Facial features must be chosen as a set

One of the first to offer modern-day avatars, Yahoo Messenger's style is a cartoony realism made believable with an assortment of facial shapes and an ever-expanding library of evocative backgrounds and fashions, the latter of which make it practical to update avatars seasonally. Outfits and backgrounds have also become culturally inclusive; for example, Yahoo has recently added saris and Indian backgrounds. Plus-size outfits are also available, though skin- and hair-tone options are restricted to a small assortment.

IMVU avatar engine

Application: Interactive, downloadable IM figure
Pros: Avatars are 3D, interactive
Cons: Monetary/point system for earning features and gear

IMVU's avatar builder is simple to use, but perhaps too simple. Limited gear comes free, including three-to-four variations on the basic avatar for head shape, hair color, and complexion. All other options are created by third-party developers and available by purchase or points. Consequently, some outfits may be more adult-themed than parents might like. Third-party add-ons must be downloaded and installed, so consider scanning them first. I appreciate the avatars' 3D detail and the extensive engine for orchestrating moods and movement, but I also resent having to pay for personal features--buying designer avatar clothing is one thing; paying to faithfully represent my appearance is another.

Second Life\'s detailed avatar engine

Second Life
Application: Gameplay figure for 3D downloadable game
Pros: Exhaustive feature adjustments along a gradient
Cons: Huge memory requirement can cause system instability

Customizing a Second Life avatar could be nearly as time-consuming as navigating the 3D game environment, especially for detail-oriented users who want to make their avatars just right. Sliding scales allow users to set dimensions for numerous variables per feature, an impressive and exhausting rite. For the nose alone, users can fine-tune the height, width, angle, nostril definition, and two bridges. As satisfying as the end result may be for creating convincing digital people, diligent users may find themselves spending hours on their looks, if not becoming overwhelmed to a point of paralysis.

WeeMee avatars are full of cherubic simplicity

Application: Exportable to IM, personal Web space
Pros: Select colors for clothing item and hair
Cons: Simplistic design may seen juvenile to some; usage fee for embedding into Windows Live Messenger

WeeWorld.com churns out brightly colored cartoon "WeeMees" with the oversize eyes and universal beam of the classic emoticon. There are plenty of whimsical expressions, headgear, animal sidekicks, and accessories, enabling your avatar to grimace while donning a Viking helmet and gripping french fries. Hairstyles include facial hair, and users can equip their avatars with anatomical features like a round belly or chiseled abs. The boxy, cherubic avatars resemble more innocent versions of the squat protagonists from television's South Park, even down to a variation of the hooded sweatshirt worn by Kenny, one of South Park's principle characters.

Famster\'s avatars come in two body shapes

Application: Family-oriented social-networking site
Pros: Variations for age and body type, realistic 2D graphics
Cons: Minimal animation; site experience costs money

Famster's creation process begins with selecting a male or female figure from a choice of five age groups, and then tailoring it with age-appropriate features and clothing from a panel display. Three cheers for being able to create custom colors for your avatar's hair and skin, and for Famster offering plus-size versions of outfits in most categories.

Click for gallery

Like Yahoo, Famster's avatars strive for the realistic end of the two-dimensional spectrum, though the image is mostly static. Weirdly, Famster avatars seem less like their real-life counterparts than Yahoo's, though the facial features portion is more developed--ladies can choose lipstick colors and men can go wild with different facial-hair patterns.

CNET News.com's Neha Tiwari contributed to this article.

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.