Metaverse therapy

Paul Raven @ 24-09-2010

New Scientist reports on psychotherapy in Second Life:

One of the first applications of avatar therapy was in treating social anxiety disorder, a crippling shyness that can confine people to their homes. James Herbert, head of the anxiety treatment and research programme at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was among the first wave of researchers to investigate avatar therapy. Encouragingly, clients generally rated the treatment highly, though there were exceptions. “Some patients and therapists reported frustration with not being able to see the individual’s face,” he says, and sometimes technical difficulties interrupted the sessions.

Avatar therapy has also helped people with phobias. In real life, the usual treatment is to gradually expose people to the source of their fear, but this can sometimes be difficult. An avatar therapist can introduce the phobia source while remaining in complete control, scaling the experience up or down according to the client’s reaction.

In fact, many of the conditions treated by face-to-face talk therapy can also be treated virtually, including depression and anxiety. Avatar therapy is proving useful for more diverse conditions too, such as traumatic brain injury, schizophrenia and Asperger’s syndrome.


Personality back-ups: immortality through avatars?

Paul Raven @ 11-06-2010

The possibility of digitising the human mind is one of those questions that will only be closed by its successful achievement, I think; there’ll always be an argument for its possibility, because the only way to disprove it would be to quantify how personality and mind actually work, and if we could quantify it, we could probably work out a way to digitise it, too. (That said, if someone can chop a hole in my logic train there, I’d be genuinely very grateful to them, because it’s a question that’s bugged me for years, and I haven’t been able to get beyond that point with my bootstrap philosophy chops.)

Philosophical digressions aside, low-grade not-quite-proof-of-concept stuff seems to be the current state of the industry. Via NextNature, New Scientist discusses a few companies trying to capture human personality in computer software:

Lifenaut’s avatar might appear to respond like a human, but how do you get it to resemble you? The only way is to teach it about yourself. This personality upload is a laborious process. The first stage involves rating some 480 statements such as “I like to please others” and “I sympathise with the homeless”, according to how accurately they reflect my feelings. Having done this, I am then asked to upload items such as diary entries, and photos and video tagged with place names, dates and keywords to help my avatar build up “memories”. I also spend hours in conversation with other Lifenaut avatars, which my avatar learns from. This supposedly provides “Linda” with my mannerisms – the way I greet people or respond to questions, say – as well as more about my views, likes and dislikes.

A more sophisticated series of personality questionnaires is being used by a related project called CyBeRev. The project’s users work their way through thousands of questions developed by the American sociologist William Sims Bainbridge as a means of archiving the mind. Unlike traditional personality questionnaires, part of the process involves trying to capture users’ values, beliefs, hopes and goals by asking them to imagine the world a century in the future. It isn’t a quick process: “If you spent an hour a day answering questions, it would take five years to complete them all,” says Lori Rhodes of the nonprofit Terasem Movement, which funds CyBeRev. “But the further you go, the more accurate a representation of yourself the mind file will become.”

It’s an interesting article, so go take a look. This little bit got me thinking:

So is it possible to endow my digital double with a believable representation of my own personality? Carpenter admits that in order to become truly like you, a Lifenaut avatar would probably need a lifetime’s worth of conversations with you.

Is that a tacit admission that who we are, at a fundamental level, is a function of everything we’ve ever done and experienced? That to record a lifetime’s worth of experiences and influences would necessarily take a lifetime? Emotionally, I find myself responding to that idea as being self-evident… and it’s the intuitive nature of my response that tells me I should continue to question it.


Virtual bodies, mutable genders

Paul Raven @ 13-05-2010

Here’s an interesting bit of research from sunny Barcelona: men wearing a virtual reality headset that allowed them to perceive themselves as a female avatar started to identify strongly with their temporarily-assumed gender.

… men donned a virtual reality (VR) headset that allowed them to see and hear the world as a female character. When they looked down they could even see their new body and clothes.

The “body-swapping” effect was so convincing that the men’s sense of self was transferred into the virtual woman, causing them to react reflexively to events in the virtual world in which they were immersed.

Men who took part in the experiment reported feeling as though they occupied the woman’s body and even gasped and flinched when she was slapped by another character in the virtual world.

[…]

Later in the study, the second character lashed out and slapped the face of the character the men were playing. “Their reaction was immediate,” said Slater. “They would take in a quick breath and maybe move their head to one side. Some moved their whole bodies. The more people reported being in the girl’s body, the stronger physical reaction they had.”

Sensors on the men’s bodies showed their heart rates fell sharply for a few seconds and then ramped up – a classic response to a perceived attack.

As expected, the body swapping effect was felt more keenly by men who saw their virtual world through the female character’s eyes than those whose viewpoint was slightly to one side of her. In all cases, the feeling was temporary and lasted only as long as the study.

Plenty of opportunity for further research there; I’m no expert, but that looks to me like a validation of the theory that gender roles are socially constructed… but then that theory has been borne out by my personal experiences in virtual worlds, in my own behaviour as well as that of others.

I’ve heard it suggested before that a way to break down some of the more persistent gender prejudices in modern culture would be for everyone to spend a month living the life of the gender they consider themselves “opposite” to – maybe VR and synthetic worlds offer us the closest approximation of that classic science fictional plot device (Stross’s Glasshouse, anyone?).


We are all sheep: Avatar, Bayonetta and the hypnosis of low-brow culture

Jonathan McCalmont @ 03-02-2010

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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I say this without having actually seen it, but James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is an interesting film. This is because its success has had the same effect upon film critics and cultural commentators as pissing on an electric fence… people are sore, jittery and annoyed at pretty much everyone, themselves included. Continue reading “We are all sheep: Avatar, Bayonetta and the hypnosis of low-brow culture”


Avatar techniques could turn back the clock on ageing actors

Paul Raven @ 18-01-2010

Via SlashDot comes a brief soundbyte (or rather textbyte) from James Cameron, who posits that the pore-deep photorealistic CGI techniques that allowed him to create current box-office smash Avatar could be used to recreate the youthful looks of popular actors who’re getting on a bit…

… Cameron’s facial scanning process is so precise—zeroing in to the very pores of an actor’s skin—that virtually any manipulation is possible. You may not be able to totally replace an actor—“There’s no way to scan what’s underneath the surface to what the actor is feeling,” the director notes—but it is now theoretically possible to extend careers by digitally keeping stars young pretty much forever. “If Tom Cruise left instructions for his estate that it was okay to use his likeness in Mission Impossible movies for the next 500 years, I would say that would be fine,” says Cameron.

More Tom Cruise movies? After he dies? That’s about the strongest justification for banning this technology entirely, if you ask me…

Less fine, at least to Cameron, is bringing long dead stars back to life. “You could put Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart in a movie together, but it wouldn’t be them. You’d have to have somebody play them. And that’s where I think you cross an ethical boundary…”

Hmm… so what if you had Monroe and Bogart played by AI simulations of Monroe and Bogart, based on every second of footage available in the digital cultural corpus? Would that be crossing an ethical boundary? Would it be the same boundary as having someone else (made of meat) play them beneath the mask of CGI? And anyway, didn’t they threaten/promise [delete as appropriate] that CGI would mean the death of the overpaid “box office draw” Hollywood superstar? Answers on a postcard, please…

More seriously, though – how do we expect new and exciting actors to rise through the ranks if we just keep recycling the faces of the past? Or will the actors of the past become characters in their own right, adding another sort-of-meta layer to the cinema experience? “[Actor X] is currently wowing cinema-goers with his flawless performance as Clint Eastwood reprising the epochal Dirty Harry role…”