Need to impress? Zip out an avatar

Updated: 2011-04-24 08:05

By John Tierney (New York Times)

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Without leaving your living room or office, you'll sit at three-dimensional virtual meetings and classes, looking around the table or the lecture hall at your colleagues' avatars.

Does this sound like future hype? In their new book, "Infinite Reality," Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson insist that 3-D conferences with avatars are nigh. The psychologists point to three developments: the Microsoft Kinect tracking system for the Xbox, the Nintendo 3DS gaming device, and the triumph on the "Jeopardy!" TV game show of I.B.M.'s Watson computer.

"These three events have been paradigm-shifting for avatar conferences," says Dr. Bailenson, the founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University in California. "Virtual reality scientists have been waiting for these events for decades - and faster than most of us predicted, the technology is finally ready for the living room and the cubicle."

The Kinect tracking device shows that it's now practical for you to control your avatar simply by moving around the living room - no more need for special suits or elaborate sensors in a lab. Nor do you have to wear special glasses to see in 3-D, thanks to the "autostereo" display on the new Nintendo 3DS, which beams a three-dimensional image to the naked eye.

With these technologies - and a few tricks that have already been done in the lab - you can sit at a virtual conference table and exchange glances with the avatars of the other participants. Your avatar would appear to be three-dimensional. Based on your photograph and tracking your movements, it would be a fairly accurate rendering of you and of your reactions.

But how accurate would you want it to be? In a virtual classroom, for instance, you might want to program your avatar to appear to sit up straight and look intently at the professor - even as you slouched or looked around the room.

Now that computers like Watson have gotten so good at emulating humans, avatars could be programmed to go on autopilot during a class or meeting, according to Dr. Blascovich and Dr. Bailenson. In "Infinite Reality," they imagine a slacker named Dave who sleeps in while his avatar attends an 8 a.m. corporate meeting, impeccably dressed and alert.

To make a really good virtual impression, Dave could exploit a tactic that has been demonstrated in experiments involving politicians' faces.

When researchers partially morph a person's face with a politician's, that person becomes more likely to approve of the politician - and has no clue why. As long as the ratio of the politician's features remains below 40 percent, the person doesn't even realize the photograph was doctored.

Therefore, Dr. Blascovich and Dr. Bailenson say, you could conceivably create an avatar with a face partially morphed with that of anyone in the room that you wanted to impress. In fact, you could customize it so that each person saw a face containing some of his or her own features. That would presumably make you more popular with your colleagues or clients - who, of course, might be using exactly the same strategy by displaying avatars morphed with your facial features.

There'd be a lot of love in the room, assuming that any of the avatars' owners were actually awake.

The New York Times


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