Saturday, July 20, 2013

Avatars: You Really Can Go Back

According to recent estimates, more than 80 percent of Internet consumers and Fortune 500 companies have an avatar or presence in an online virtual community, including virtual worlds (e.g., Second Life) and social networks (e.g., Facebook).  In contemporary usage, “avatar” refers to general graphic representations that are personified by means of computer technology. Depending on the web site, an avatar may take the form of a static picture or a dynamic cartoonish character, with facial and body characteristics and style of dress chosen by the real-life user.  Internet users typically have some degree of choice as to the selection, modification, and accessorizing of a self-representational avatar, which can be constructed to represent one’s ideal or aspirational selves, or as a canvas for experimentation of various alternative selves, as MIT psychoanalyst Shelly Turkle observed in interviews with participants of virtual games:

                Online the plain represented themselves as glamorous, the old as young,
                the young as older.  Those of modest means wore elaborate jewelry.  In
                virtual space, the cripple walked without crutches, and the shy improved
                their chances as seducers.

As consumer behavior researcher Russell Belk observed, in the pre-digital era, new identities could be tested by changing one’s hair style or color, growing facial hair, changing one’s lipstick and eye coloring, buying new clothes or cars, and so on.  Part of the great appeal of avatars for consumers in the digital era is derived from the physical invisibility that can be maintained within virtual space, which offers a relatively safe environment for self-experimentation.  Richard Allan Bartle, one of the creators of the first virtual world, MUD, was one of the first to point out that avatars now facilitate this process online by “let[ting] you find out who you are by letting you be who you want to be,” without the concomitant risks that would be evident in the physical world, providing a “looking glass” not only for others, but for ourselves.  A good example of this is the Ditto designer eyeglasses website, which invites each visitor to create a 3-D video of his or her face via their computer webcam to virtually try on glasses.  In this way, online shoppers can “see” themselves in any pair of the site’s growing collection of designer eyewear.

 Researchers have begun to turn their attention to avatars.  In a post a couple weeks ago I mentioned the Milgram obedience experiments and the ethical implications of doing that sort of research in the contemporary era of institutional review boards, ethical guidelines, and increasing suspicions about deception and invasion of privacy.  Avatars, however, are proving to be a more ethical alternative to real people.  In other words, you can convince someone that they are administering painful electric shocks to a virtual research participant, but not a real one.  No surprise, there are even ethical implications in using avatars for this sort of research, such as the argument that if you desensitize people to aggressing against someone in the virtual world, they will be inured to doing the same in the real world.  

Now comes an intriguing set of studies from a research team led by Domma Banakou, Raphaela Groten, and Mel Slater from the Experimental Virtual Environments Lab for Neuroscience and Technology in Barcelona.  This is pretty complicated stuff, but the title of their recently published research paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tells it all: "Illusory ownership of a virtual child body causes overestimation of object sizes and implicit attitude changes"  And here's a pretty clear summary from the Beaming website:

Immersive virtual reality can give adults such a strong illusion of being inside a child’s body that it affects their perception of the physical sizes of objects as well as their personal attributes, according to a study. Mel Slater and colleagues use immersive virtual reality to give adults avatars. Half had the virtual body of a 4-year-old and the other half a scaled-down adult body, the same size as the child body. Participants viewed their virtual bodies, which moved in real-time determined by the participants’ movements, from a first person perspective. Both groups reported that they felt a sense of “ownership” over their virtual bodies and both overestimated the size of objects in the virtual environment. However, participants in the child bodies overestimated object size by a greater degree than participants in scaled-down adult bodies. The “children” were also far more likely to associate with child-like attributes than the “small adults.” The sense of body ownership and differences in perception disappeared when the authors used the same virtual bodies, but disassociated participants’ movements from their avatars. This study demonstrates that the type of avatar can influence people’s size perceptions and self-attributes, a result that has potential in various computer-based applications, the authors argue.

Maybe it's an exaggeration to say we can go back again, but this research has some interesting implications.  Altering people's bodily self-representation, for example, by having an adult 'occupy' the body of a child,' seems to have the effect on our system of reproducing the experience of the world 'as a child experiences it.'  It's easy to recognize the potential here for manufacturers and designers of products for children or adults.  The ability to occupy the 'body' of a virtual child could provide insight into children's experience and attitudes towards furniture, toys, clothing, etc.  The same holds true for other kinds of individuals, such as the obese and handicapped.

As we choose our self-representations in virtual reality settings, our behaviors might be influenced accordingly.  In other words, we don't only exert influence on our avatars--they also exert influence on us.

Further reading:
1. D. Banakou, R. Groten, M. Slater.  Illusory ownership of a virtual child body causes overestimation of object sizes and implicit attitude changes.   Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013.  DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1306779110
2. Belk, R.  (2013).  Extended self in a digital world.  Journal of Consumer Research, in press.
3.  Slater, M., Antley, A., Davison, A. et al.(2006). A virtual reprise of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments.
4.  Also check out Sebastian Kuntz's comprehensive Slideshare presentation, Immersive Virtual Reality, at:

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