1. What is it about
Everyone is looking at you. You look gorgeous. Every now and then few people invite you to become their friend. You have a huge network of them. You feel very confident. You tend to switch your cloth every two hours. Won’t take much effort tough. You just want to experiment. It makes you feel better when you are always appropriately dressed depending on your surrounding environment. Now you decide to go and show off your latest dress on a catwalk. You look so real and so magnificent. Let’s have some fun …
This is the virtual world of our dreams. Your avatar is the representation of your digital self. As it was fantastically portrayed in the movie, The Matrix, your avatar can become a big part of you when you are in a very realistic looking virtual world. People will be paying a lot of attention to their avatar in a virtual world.
2. Where is the fun
- 8 AM: Dressed up with a clean cut navy blue suit that you customized the other day, you are going to attend a seminar on “Tax payments in real and virtual worlds”.
- 10 AM: Looking like a construction builder with a hardhat, you go to negotiate renting a land for your new shopping centre in Virtual Island.
- 12 AM: You need to call the bank; the real bank. You switch to your real-world avatar for your video phone; a smart looking lady with glasses and professional looks.
- 6 PM: Looking like a dwarf with an axe in your hand, you go on a quest to kill the monsters of the far-far away land.
- 8 PM: With an avatar that looks similar to you, start an Instant Messaging chat with your friend regarding your plans for the weekend.
- 10 PM: You are a tall blonde in short skirts and exotic boots with feather and fluorescent particles emitting outward at all times, you enter the virtual world for some late night fun …
Put three vertical images side by side. Each is an avatar. One from SL (choose cloth). One render in bryce. One as a beast of some sort.
3. What are its Applications
You may use your avatar in 3D virtual worlds, while making video phones, communicating online and so on. Cameras can recognize your facial behaviour and imitate your emotions into your avatar for better realism. You may use your avatar to interact with the rest of the world in anything you do digitally. You may wonder why not just using your own image instead. Well, that’s what people originally thought. An amusing long-term prediction was that once video-phones become available, it will pick up and become main stream. However, this did not happen as much as it was expected, since we might not be interested to be looked at when we suddenly receive a call. The problem was psychological, rather than technical.
On the other hand, our stylish avatar may make us feel a lot better about ourselves and more confident. Your avatar can now look like anyone you want, as trendy and as modern as you wish for. Research shows that 65% of communication is carried out through body language (Kinesics and Context). An avatar lets you tap into that communication channel and deliver your message much more effectively and probably quicker. No more need for a smiley. No more getting worried that you forgot to put a wink after you typed in your semi-sarcastic remark.
An avatar will help you to communicate more efficiently without the risk of miss-understanding. Do you think it will be difficult to learn how to control your avatar’s facial impression? There is a solution for that too. Your avatar’s face can be automatically animated based on your own emotion captured by a camera pointing towards you. As a user, you are not forced to change your behaviour when you want to interact with others. You simply carry on talking or write textual material as before and expect the computer to take care of the rest. The computer can detect your emotion by just observing the patterns of the text you have typed in. Your avatar can be online even when you are not. It can collect your messages and deal with small requests that don’t need your immediate attention. It can be like your secretary, except that it would visually represent you. And you will always have the option to force your avatar to smile (presumably, you won’t be able to force your secretary to do something they don’t want to do …, well, then again, who knows?).
4. How developed is it
Avatars are already among us. They are used both in 2D and 3D. Avatars are already represented in virtual worlds such as Second Life and massively multiplayer games. However, we are at a very early stage of virtual world development and avatars will grow in sophistication as these worlds advance.
Technically, we are now approaching an era that real-time realistic graphics is become a norm. The image below shows how characters look like in Crysis.
5. How can it be improved
Currently each avatar is used in its own system. You cannot exchange avatars between different virtual worlds, be it 2D or 3D. Customising an avatar takes time, effort and may also cost. This becomes even more critical as avatars develop into more detailed and sophisticated visual entities. Ideally, you want to be able to create your avatar once and then use it in a variety of environments and worlds. For example, you might have purchased many different cloths for your avatar in Second Life. Once you have invested in your avatar, you probably won’t be very pleased to spend similar effort and resources to get your new avatar up and running in a new system. This field is still very new and also there is some progress towards standardization of virtual worlds, we are far away from this vision. Ultimately you want a design-once-use-anywhere avatar.
The other important feature is the realism of your avatar and how good looking you can make it. Again, your avatar’s graphics will be limited by the system it is in and as these worlds are improved your avatar will look better and better. Interestingly, increasing the visual realism of an avatar may not necessarily make it more life-like and may end up looking hideous. Uncanny Valley hypothesis indicates that humans may not respond positively to a human-like robot or 3D visualization of it, if there is a mismatch between its visual representation and its behaviour. As the visuals are improved, our response is improved as we show more empathy towards it. However, there comes a point after which we may get repulsed by what we see because we notice the anomalies in a creature which looks very human-like. This is a problem applicable to both robotics and 3D visualisations. The solution is to show avatars as caricatures until their behaviour is developed enough to match their advanced visuals. Everything will be fine as long the avatar is not dropped into the uncanny valley.
6. What does it lead to
Consider plastic surgery, cosmetic and fashion and the entire industry behind it. People are obsessed with how they look and strongly believe that image counts. Some do all sort of things to boost their confidence. Just about everyone has to make a decision everyday about how they want to present themselves to the rest of the world. It’s a big business both in terms of time we spent on it and the amount of resources we allocate for it.
Now consider the digital world. It is fairly new and is progressing incredibly fast. Many of our tasks are now carried out in the digital world, though currently we can’t quite express ourselves the way we do in the real world. This is about to change and digital presentation or avatars would become as big an industry as they are in real life. After all, if your image matters and first impression counts, it matters and counts everywhere, be it real or virtual.
Fortunately, modifying your image digitally will be extremely cheap and easy and will have no ethical or political implications in comparison with modifying your look in the real world (such as with cosmetic surgery). We can even go as far as predicting that far more people will be interested in changing and modifying and obsessing about their digital self than they would for their real life version.
In the future, as the realism of avatars is increased to the point where they become indistinguishable from film, guidelines will be introduced for the design of your avatar and you may not be able to use any shape you want. When avatar technology becomes so realistic that you can’t distinguish between what is real and what is not, people with various phobias may become susceptible to abuse. Suppose someone doesn’t like insects and is confronted with a group of giant realistic cockroach avatars! This may make the virtual world very uncomfortable for certain users. As virtual worlds become more critical in everyday life and are not treated like games, people may start to have a right to use them peacefully and without abuse. There will come a point when it becomes necessary to setup rules, best practices and employ policing techniques to make sure the virtual world is safe for everyone.