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"By the time I can take people out to where Hubble is looking, they won't be human anymore, by a long way."
- Larry Niven

Avatar  
  A computer-enhanced doppelganger; a computer-generated image that takes your place in a three-dimensional online encounter.  

Although the term 'avatar' was used in an earlier computer game, Neal Stephenson was the first person to spend a fair amount of time in the metaverse describing them. Certainly, the novel Snow Crash popularized and fixed the term in the computer science lexicon.

As Hiro approaches the street, he sees two couples probably using their parent's computer for a double date in the Metaverse. He's not seeing real people, of course. It's all part of a moving illustration created by his computer from specifications coming down the fiber optic cable. These people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.
From Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson.
Published by Bantam in 1992
Additional resources -

An avatar is an incarnation of a deity in human form; the literal meaning of the Sanskrit word is "he passes or crosses down." It is taken from Hindu philosophy. Just as the deity "passes down" from the higher realms of being to the simpler realm of the material Earth, so a person becomes an avatar in a simpler computer-generated reality.

The first use of graphic or text virtual identities was in multi-user domains (MUDs); although MUDs were first created in the late nineteen-seventies, "avatar" is a more recent term for a virtual character.

In the 1985 game Ultima IV, to become the Avatar was essentially the goal of the game. This became your screen name; customization of your Avatar character was allowed.

For a "real-world" example, see the SF in the News story Church of Fools: The Coming of the Avatar?.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Snow Crash
  More Ideas and Technology by Neal Stephenson
  Tech news articles related to Snow Crash
  Tech news articles related to works by Neal Stephenson

Avatar-related news articles:
  - Church of Fools: The Coming Of The Avatar?
  - The Rapture Of The Avatar
  - Alter Ego Exhibit - Avatars Revealed
  - Games Of Tomorrow Built By Players Wiki-Style
  - The Church of Elvis
  - Real-Time Avatars Mirror Your Expression
  - High Fidelity Produces More Expressive Avatars!

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