The ‘natural avatar’ and the ‘plastic avatar’

By | July 15, 2011

I was recently asked to consider an immersive collaboration platform that utilised what I term a  ‘natural’ avatar, that is, a streaming video representation of one’s real self via the use of a webcam on a digital body.

Logically, it would seem that this is a better solution than an entirely graphically produced avatar, as the subtle range of behavioural cues conveyed by a real face leads to more effective communication. However, asserting that a video image is ‘real’ (albeit electronic code and pixels) and that a graphical avatar is artificial, does not convey the complex relationship users have with different forms  of embodiment. Studies undertaken at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (SVHIL) show that our brains do not necessarily know where ‘reality’ ends and ‘virtual’ begins and that when we meet an avatar in virtual reality, we treat them as real.

Furthermore, researcher Nick Yee’s studies found that a person’s graphical avatar can sometimes be a better expression of ‘self ‘than what cognitive scientist Andy Clark describes as ‘our biological skin bags’ . A Cerebral Palsy group’s participation in Second Life (CBS 2008) confirms this: via a shared graphical avatar, they were able to jump, dance, ski, skateboard and communicate with others without real world constraints; they reported feeling ‘more themselves’ as a result.  It can be expected that other physically challenged groups could experience corresponding benefits.

In another SVHIL survey series, ‘The Proteus Effect’  participants were assigned avatars opposite to their physical type, (short were tall, tall were short, attractive and less attractive), then people were given a set of negotiations. When the negotiations were repeated in the physical world, the kind of dominance the tall and attractive people displayed in the virtual world was carried over.

These findings suggest that digital self-representation can have a powerful influence on behaviour, particularly in the link between online and off-line behaviour, for example of a Cerebral Palsy group in Second Life, who were observed to have greater self-confidence and a more positive outlook as a result of their graphical avatar’s freedom of movement and social interaction

In view of this, I  advocate that avatar trials, and there are many underway,  should not be underpinned by the  dichotomous construct of ‘real vs unreal’. What is preferable is to acknowledge that boundaries between real and virtual are diminishing, made manifest through established trials but equally by observing online behaviour, from Facebook’s long social shadow which sees users developing a circle of online friends, to the thriving trade in digital objects for personalising and identifying online presence, now according toindustry analyst kzero,  $4bn plus industry.

I prefer to use the as a distinguisher, the term ‘natural’ to describe a webcast avatar , and the term ‘plastic’, in the sense of moulding and extending, for ‘synthetic’ or ‘graphical’ avatars. This preserves the integrity of ‘real’ in both the online and the off line world, and that hazy part which lies between.

Remembering that post-human theorist Kathryn Hayles dismissed the material body as an accidental flesh prosthesis, Nick Yee points out that virtual worlds allow us to confront this accident directly by offering us the possibility of alternate embodiment which might suggest ‘novel metaphors for social interaction and work’. Why not, he asks, have a scribe in a meeting embodied as a white board? Imagine that a team leader was a campfire, emitting a glow and emanating ‘warmth, drawing the team near’? What new ways of thinking might ensue if working groups inhabited one avatar instead of each participant having their own, or avatars were reduced to strips of colour to convey mood. Expanding the conceptual ‘self’ may be the key to finding innovative ways to develop teams, break down hierarchical (and other social) barriers and problem solve. Accordingly,  a ‘natural avatar’  is not always the best solution for the project at hand (unless, as a platform, it can harbour a range of avatar options).

I can imagine that platforms developed around, but not limited to, the natural avatar, will find greater application.  In order to realise commercial potential, developers need to identify not only those situations where a natural avatar is the most effective presence but also an evaluation of those situations when a natural avatar limits, rather than assists interaction. The more we understand the use cases for ‘natural’ and ‘plastic’ presence, the more confidently we can position platforms for entry into the fast developing education and health sectors.

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