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“Avatar” has become the latest buzz word in the Net world, with major providers and portals launching new Web sites in their search for fresh revenue sources.

Originally a Sanskrit word denoting the incarnation of a god, an avatar in cyber lingo represents a computer graphic that appears on the Internet as a user’s alter ego.

In an effort to attract chat pals or just to impress others, many users are willing to splurge when dressing up their Net aliases.

For site operators, the avatar concept offers a persuasive means of charging money for Net services that many users have come to regard as free of charge.

“It’s funny, but the good-looking avatars are the most popular ones,” said Naoki Fukui, chief operating officer at NeoWiz Japan Corp., which operates SayClub, one of the avatar sites. “They can easily make friends at chat sites.”

Membership of the site is free, with those who sign up given an avatar of their registered gender.

Like a handle name on a chat site, the personalized graphic appears everywhere on the site.

Many of the site’s 50,000 users have rejected their avatars’ mundane clothing — a plain T-shirt and shorts — and have chosen to shop at a virtual mall, where more than 1,500 virtual garments are sold.

In addition to clothes and accessories, users can also invest in virtual pets and backgrounds, such as a rainy scene, that appear with the avatars.

Fully adorned avatars can be shown off to other members at virtual beauty contests.

Clothing and other items are priced between 20 yen and 530 yen, with casual shopping rife among avatar users aspiring to be “cybergenic.”

“Some users told me they spent (a large amount of) money without quite noticing it,” Fukui said, adding that some users spend between 4,000 yen and 5,000 yen a month.

While Fukui and other operators declined to disclose sales figures, they said transactions involving avatar items are on the increase.

The avatar is not an entirely new Net phenomenon, and neither is making it a new revenue source by cashing in on users’ desire to stand out from other cyber denizens.

This business model is credited to NeoWiz Japan’s South Korean parent, NeoWiz Corp., which launched the SayClub site in South Korea in July 1999.

The South Korean site boasts a membership of 22 million — about a half of the country’s entire population — along with some 24.28 billion won (around 2.4 billion yen) in sales of avatar items.

According to Cho Chang Eun, an information technology critic in Seoul, there are at least 100 major avatar sites in South Korea, with the market for avatar items estimated to be around 40 billion to 50 billion won.

She said the trend started around 2000, with a growing number of portal operators finding it a convenient way to charge money for community site users.

She stressed that South Koreans’ propensity to stand out from others helped fuel the boom.

While Cho is not sure whether the avatar concept will enjoy that kind of popularity in Japan, major Internet service providers and portal sites, including NTT Communications Corp. and Yahoo Japan have also launched their own avatar sites recently.

Poweredcom Inc., provider of the POINT Internet service, has launched its Cafesta avatar site in July 2002. It now boasts 610,000 users.

“Compared with text-only communication, the avatar greatly increases the range of expression,” said Tomio Hino, assistant manager of Poweredcom’s Web service planning group.

Like many other avatar sites, membership is free and those who sign up can choose from more than 1,000 clothing and other items. Prices range between 150 yen and 300 yen.

“When we sold avatar clothes at 1,000 yen per item on a limited offer for 100 users, they sold out in one day,” Hino said.

Some apparel companies, meanwhile, have already started to exploit the potential of avatars as a means of promoting their wares.

Yahoo Japan saw brisk demand of real as well as virtual items when its site offered designer T-shirts by Backdrop, a legendary American causal clothing store in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

“It’s an unprecedented way of marketing fashion,” said Tomoki Yoshino, a designer at Backdrop. “(Compared with conventional Net ads,) it prompts users to take actions to put items on their avatars.”

According to Go Kasai, a Yahoo Japan official, a poll targeting 1,000 users saw 52 percent of respondents voicing a desire to wear the items they put on their avatars.

Apparel companies are not the only businesses attracted to avatar sites.

Dorimu-tou (Dorimu Island), a three-dimensional avatar site operated by Doricom Co., boasts a list of unlikely advertisers, including shipping firm Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. and housing equipment maker Tostem Corp.

Mitsui O.S.K. generated a cyber version of the Nippon Maru, a 21,903-ton passenger cruiser owned by the company, on the site, a virtual island where avatars stroll around as though in a role-playing game.

Designed to raise corporate recognition among youngsters, the cruiser is now used as a meeting hall by avatars, according to company spokesman Hidenori Onuki.

Tostem has generated a showroom on the site in which visiting avatars can stroll around, inspecting kitchen systems, wall designs and other housing materials.

“This showroom is not manned now, but it is possible for us to attend visitors using avatars in the near future,” said Tetsuya Mizutani, an IT official at Tostem.

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