Ray Kurzweil has commented that we’ll be spending quite a bit of our time in virtual reality environments in the coming decades. They’ll be full immersion, and, as in Second Life, you can be someone else if you choose. Or several someones.
“Re-creating Yourself” is but one of the chapters in the new book, Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution, by psychologists Jim Blascovich (UCSB) and Jeremy Bailenson (Stanford). In this chapter, they discuss a series of studies on virtual doppelgangers — and explore the notion of avatar clones of you that can behave independently of your own intentions and actions in virtual space.
“The brain doesn’t much care if an experience is real or virtual,” they say. “Many people prefer the digital aspects of their lives to physical ones.” Their book sets out to prove it.
Written in a non-academic, highly readable style, Infinite Reality starts with a short discussion of the history of virtual reality, including how humans have been engaging in virtual realities for centuries through storytelling, books, radio, and film. It provides a broad overview of the research literature and ends with a road map of the near future. You’ll find many references to The Matrix, the stories of Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson’s Neuromancer. It’s one of the few all-5-star books you’ll find at amazon.com
The implication of their title is clear: the possibilities within virtual worlds are potentially limitless. The book provides an illuminating introduction to the social and psychological issues that underlie such expansive experiential opportunities. Do we have the same expectations of avatars as of real people? In virtual worlds, are our brains just as susceptible to fear, love and trauma as in “grounded reality?” Should our avatars be held accountable for their independent actions? Do people treat digital representations of humans as if they were real? How do you reach out and touch someone in a virtual world? Will teledildonics (“sexually stimulating devices that can be controlled by others via the Internet”) become the killer app of virtual reality?
They conclude with the prospect of eternity in virtual environments on the Internet: “… what we know about people’s desire to live forever, and how much more quickly digital technology is advancing compared to biological solutions to aging, virtual identity archiving will be one of the main areas of development in the coming years.”
Just how close are we to realistic, fully immersive 3-D environments? In a recent New York Times article on virtual conferencing, Dr. Bailenson is quoted has having said there are three recent paradigm-shifting events for avatar conferences: the Microsoft Kinect tracking system for the Xbox, the Nintendo 3DS gaming device, and the triumph on “Jeopardy!” of IBM’s Watson computer.
“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,” he says.
Dr. Bailenson is the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. His co-author, Dr. Blascovich, is the director of the Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Much of the Stanford lab’s research is summarized in Infinite Reality:
• Avatars and Behavioral Modeling — Can behaviors be encouraged by seeing the virtual self model health-related rewards and punishments such as weight loss, weight gain?
• The Proteus Effect — Putting people in avatars of different attractiveness or height change how they behave in a virtual environment.
• Transformed Social Interaction — The experience of social presence as well as task performance within collaborative virtual environments.
• Avatar Identity —The ties that individuals have to an avatar.
• Learning in Immersive VR — (With Berkeley’s CITRUS lab) Exploring how immersive virtual reality extends the benefits of video learning, allowing the user to enter the same world as the teacher.
• Avatars in Second Life — Longitudinal (8 week), large sample size (80 participants) study examined the influence of avatar appearance on virtual and offline behavior.
• Haptic Communication in Social Interaction — The use of networked digital touch in collaborative virtual environments.
• Facial Tracking and Emotion Abstraction in Communication — Monitoring facial features alone can yield answers to optimizing performance at the work place.
H+ contacted Dr. Bailenson to ask him about Infinite Reality, his research, the new paradigm-shifting technology, and his thoughts about virtual eternity.
Surf-D: What motivated you and Dr. Blascovich to first start your collaboration on virtual reality studies?
Jeremy: I was inspired by the “huge ideas” in William Gibson’s Neuromancer. As I was finishing up graduate school, I was being trained in some classic artificial intelligence production, and realizing we were still very far from having real AI. On the other hand, all Gibson’s mindbending scenarios involving avatars were possible in the short term, and I decided to pursue a career examining them.
Surf-D: The recent NYT article describing your work mentions three technologies that could make virtual worlds “finally ready for the living room” and the cubicle:” the Microsoft Kinect tracking system for the Xbox, the Nintendo 3DS gaming device, and the triumph on “Jeopardy!” of IBM’s Watson computer. What is so special about these technologies that they will push virtual reality to the next level?
Jeremy: Jaron Lanier, in my opinion one of the three or four true pioneers of the field of virtual reality, claims nobody is going to use VR if you have to wear cumbersome equipment or dedicate a special room for it. The combination of autostereo and computer vision gesture tracking allows for VR to work “in the cubicle.”
Surf-D: Your book discusses the possibility of using virtual tracking data to reconstruct personalities and possibly achieve a form of “virtual immortality.” How does this differ from the ideas of Kurzweil and others on mind uploading?
Jeremy: Two ways — in an ”avatar archive” immortality is achieved in a less complete way than in Kurzweil’s sense. An avatar preserves your legacy, not your consciousness. While future generations will enjoy your avatar’s presence, you will not be consciously “in” the avatar. Second, the ability to archive your avatar is possible today — not in the future. Think about the actors who have spent weeks inside of a motion capture unit, for example Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. If Pitt passed away tomorrow, his great grandchildren would be able to interact with an avatar that has his appearance, nonverbal behavior, and personality, due to all of the tracking data they recorded during the film’s production.
Surf-D: You make a fundamental distinction between “avatars” and “agents,” yet there are bots starting to appear in 3-D virtual worlds in avatar form. Some bots, in games like “Unreal Tournament,” can even fool judges into thinking the bots are human. How so you see such AI bots influencing social interactions in the emerging virtual worlds?
Jeremy: As realism and artificial intelligence get better, it will be more difficult to differentiate between avatars and agents. Last I checked, though, nobody has taken home the Loebner Prize!
Surf-D: In your view, what fundamental virtual reality research will be critical in the next several years to facilitate the increasing numbers of online virtual users?
Jeremy: Naturalistic tracking. Nobody wants to hunt and peck in order to create subtle animations during social interactions. Once facial expressions, gestures, and so forth map onto an avatar, the advantages of having an “optimizable” representation will make videoconferencing a thing of the past.