The metaverse won’t grow until we wear our own faces there

Paul Raven @ 02-11-2010

Interesting think-piece from Wagner James Au of New World Notes; he’s wondering if the drop-off of interest in virtual worlds is driven by the very human need to be able to see the real face of the person you’re interacting with. The riff originates from noting that folk in Halloween costumes that hid their faces experienced less engagement and roleplay with others than those in costumes where the face was uncovered:

Without the ability to peek at the person behind the costume, people were largely leery, and standoffish. Many of these face-obscuring costumes were incredibly creative and believable, which you might think would encourage more roleplay. But for the most part, if they couldn’t get a rough idea of the person inside the outfit, people would hold back.

I think we’re seeing a similar effect with virtual worlds, as compared to social games. Most of the biggest social games, like FarmVille, have customized avatars, but the avatar is connected to a real identity, and perhaps even more important, a real face. In effect, social game avatars act like Halloween costumes, where you can see the person inside the outfit. Most avatars in virtual worlds, by contrast, resemble a full body costume where the face is largely or totally obscured. This is probably a major reason why they’ve failed to gain mass adoption. In effect, most of the population is looking at virtual world avatars the same way people at Halloween parties look at costumes that have hidden faces — with interest and curiosity, maybe, but also with some apprehension or unease.

If I’m right, one good way to grow virtual worlds is to make avatars more like casual Halloween costumes, in which you’re able to know a little about the person controlling it. That doesn’t necessarily mean linking the avatar to the owner’s Facebook profile. (In fact I’d suggest linking avatar profiles to dating sites, like OKCupid, would be more productive than Facebook.) Halloween isn’t popular because people want to actually be Bat Man or Sarah Palin or even Pedobear — they want to express a part of their personality in a fun way, in a fun social context where others are doing the same. And above all, have this roleplay connect to the rest of their lives.

It’s a pretty loose thesis at this point, but it does chime with my own experiences in metaverse realities, namely that the anonymity and/or immersive never-out-of-character role-playing aspects that so engage the core demographics of such spaces are actively repellent to others.

I suspect business-sphere interest and investment in metaverse tech will be the necessary developmental catalyst for the sort of transparency Au is suggesting (a sort of video-conferencing on steroids, which might get popular very fast when oil prices start climbing again and flying overseas for meetings becomes an unsustainable overhead), but I also suspect that the heaviest metaverse users will always be those who find the wearing of masks to be a liberation from reality rather than a disconnect from it.


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.


What’s cheaper than outsourcing to the developing world*?

Paul Raven @ 22-09-2010

Easy: outsource to the metaverse. Wagner James Au of New World Notes points to a post by software guy Max Klein, who discovered the cheapest way to get native-speaker translation work done is to offer it to Second Life’s polyglot clades of regular residents:

How did I reduce my cost from $9000 to $46? No, I didn’t do it by brainstorming or by being clever – but by a chance discovery as I was reading the BBC news website: I found an article about the second life economy.

Second life is filled with people who want Linden Dollars. They come from all over the world, and for them it’s just a game. They will willingly spend 30 minutes to translate the article for you for 20cents, which is 50 Linden $. For that, they can get accessories, funiture, clothes etc. within the game.

For them it’s easy work that allows them get something from within the game. For me, it’s an insanely cheap native language translation to languages like french, italian, etc.

A chance discovery, a few days getting used to the game, and I saved myself $8950 bucks.

And thanks to Mister Klein, I now have a new idea for how to make my name in the metaverse: I’m gonna start the first virtual union. 😉

More seriously, though, I can see how starting some sort of employment bureau in SL for this sort of work could be a real moneyspinner; where there are savings margins of the scale that Klein is claiming, there’s plenty of space for middlemen. Things have been quiet on the metaverse front, at least as far as meatspace news is concerned, but a goldrush on those low low wages is sure to look very appealing to cash-strapped meatspace businesses…

[ * This title ignores the proposition that SL and other metaverse realities are, in some respects, developing nations themselves… ]


The sentient Love Machine: Second Life creator planning metaverse Singularity?

Paul Raven @ 04-02-2010

Regular readers may remember me mentioning LoveMachine Inc., the new project of Second Life creator Philip Rosedale, back in November of last year. At that point, all the signs pointed toward LoveMachine being a start-up that intended to develop a reputational currency system for virtual worlds… and for all we know, it probably still is.

But thanks to SL uber-journalist Wagner James Au, we hear that Rosedale and company have added another project to the company roster. Its title? “The Brain: Can 10,000 computers become a person?”

Rosedale has long been interested in artificial intelligence, and the metaverse would seem like the ideal platform for that sort of research. Rosedale is playing his cards close to his chest at this point (and the cynic in me suspects that there’s an element of publicity-seeking involved, which I’ve gone and indulged by posting about it), but given LoveMachine’s open-frame “pick a task and join the team” approach to recruitment and the number of floating tech geniuses in San Francisco, I’d guess he’s no less likely to make progress than anyone else in the same field… provided that’s where the company’s focus stays put, of course.

And there’s no guarantee of that, either. LoveMachine’s remit is somewhat peripatetic, as is its culture, with Rosedale and chums setting up shop for the day anywhere they can find comfy seats and free wireless internet. Even if the dreams of metaverse AI come to nothing, LoveMachine may end as a blueprint for a new sort of company that, as Au points out, sounds like something out of William Gibson’s early novels: a loose, ad-hoc collective of tech geeks and console cowboys, working wherever they can find a flat surface and some bandwidth, building new things in imaginary spaces.


Battered avatars – feminist statement or misogynist pandering?

Paul Raven @ 26-11-2009

"Battle Royale" Second Life avatar skinWith its ability to allow us to take on new forms, appearances and identities, the metaverse is opening up as a whole new arena for discussions about cultural perceptions. Here’s a fresh example: a Second Life avatar skin designer released a collection of skins named “Battle Royale” on to the market, which would make the female avatar wearing them look like they’d been in a pretty serious brawl – black eyes, bruises and grazes, that sort of thing. Cue angry protest from commentators decrying the skins as a potential glorification of domestic violence. [image borrowed from JuicyBomb]

As the designer made plain, there was no such intent – but offence is in the eye of the beholder in such incidents, and domestic abuse is a deservedly sensitive topic. SL fashionista Iris Ophelia makes the point that hardly anyone would consider making a fuss about the already numerous male avatar skins that portray a similarly battered appearance, despite the largely unreported incidences of male-victim domestic violence, and hypothesises that the incident actually underlines a less-observed double standard in our attitudes to abuse. She also sees battered avatars as a potentially feminist statement, a subversion of the perfect and unruffled female characters from combat-based computer games, for example.

Whichever side of that debate you favour, it’s interesting to consider the potential of the metaverse as a place where this sort if discussion can be had slightly more safely and comfortably than in “reality”; given the theoretical anonymity of each avatar, it may be easier to speak out as a victim of real-world abuse while spending time in a virtual space. But of course, anonymity works both ways[nsfw], as anyone who’s spent more than five minutes on the web already knows…


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