As I See It: Avatar Nation
Published: January 28, 2008
by Victor Rozek
Let's say that you want to attend COMMON. But this year, COMMON is being held in Nashville, or Dallas, or Boston, or Seattle, or Chicago, or San Diego, or anywhere except where you are. First, you'd have to budget for the trip a year ahead, or there would be no money for travel. Next, you'd have to grovel for permission from management. Then you'd have to book a flight, make your hotel reservations, and rent a car. On your travel day, you would probably get up at some ungodly hour to get to the airport early, leave your car in the ridiculously expensive long-term parking, and subject yourself to the indignities of search and seizure.
Once you arrive, there's the joy of staying in a sterile hotel room and sleeping in a bed slept in by a thousand people before you; not to mention spending days on your feet in a crowded exhibit hall, frustrated by all the great breakout sessions you won't be able to attend because they're all scheduled at the same time.
What if you could just send your avatar?
Avatars are animated alter-egos; computer-generated characters controlled by users. Like people, they start out being pretty generic, but can evolve into a near-infinite variety of shapes, colors, and sizes which can be accessorized to express the imaginative yearnings of their humans. Although avatars can represent any part of a user's personality, they generally appear to represent the repressed parts--the self you can't be when you're being yourself.
Avatars inhabit, among other places, a virtual world called Second Life, a three-dimensional, multi-user, virtual environment with about 8.5 million users who call themselves "residents." It was developed by Linden Lab, a firm quite appropriately based in San Francisco, a venue where reality is often bent to the whim of its residents. As explained by Aaron Ragan-Fore writing for the Eugene Weekly, "Second Life provides a place where [users] can form societies, buy and sell items and services, and even create buildings and neighborhoods." It is a universe where environment and experience are self-directed, bounded only by software and imagination. And, it's a place where people from all over the world can come together to participate in a technical conference. Think of it as life a few leaps removed from a Star Trek holodeck.
Virtual worlds, supported by broadband networks, high-end graphics, and inexpensive computers with muscular processors, are making trade conferences more accessible by eliminating much of the annoyance and expense that accompany travel.
Even IBM, a "real life" company if ever there was one, boasts 50 virtual destinations in Second Life, representing operations from Norway to Israel, and interests from software development to recruitment. As yet, however, none of the sites have very many members (some as few as two people), and the site with the highest membership (480) is something called Second Life Ballet, where avatars perform "classical, neoclassical, contemporary, and novel ballets." All of which suggests that developing a virtual presence is still more of a novelty than a business strategy.
An organization with more of a strategic virtual presence is the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Although it is situated in an ugly building in downtown Eugene, Oregon, most of its members will only wander the halls of ISTE's Second Life headquarters. Located on Second Life's main grid, it is an elaborate stone, wood, and glass structure that looks as if it might have been inspired by I. M. Pei and George Jetson.
The organization believed that having a virtual hub would allow for greater and more intimate communication with its global membership and facilitate a broad-based exchange of ideas. The response was overwhelming: some 2,300 educators became Second Life residents, the headquarters became crowded, and like any successful organization, ISTE expanded. For $1,700--the price of a couple of airline tickets--ISTE purchased an island and ingeniously dubbed it ISTE Island. Yes, even in a virtual world you need money to do more than look and, by happy coincidence, virtual money can be purchased from Linden Labs with real money. ISTE outfitted their island with a conference center, outdoor amphitheater, fire pits, tree houses, and cafes, as gathering places for inquisitive avatars. They've since purchased two more islands with future expansion in mind. (As a sidebar, wouldn't you love to have been at the budget meeting when someone first suggested to a bean counter that the organization should spend real money to buy virtual land?)
ISTE now regularly holds online technology roundtables and informal social gatherings where members can network and exchange information on leading-edge uses of technology in the classroom. And, they appear to be having fun doing it.
As avatars arrive, they can be identified by their virtual names (like Little Tart, a delightful name for an educator because it makes you wonder what she teaches; and Wizzy Wezzog, which is strong on alliteration but weak on delight). Virtual names can also be associated with real life names and job titles. Participants enter an outdoor amphitheater, sit in what appear to be comfortable, oversized chairs (although why comfort would matter to an avatar is not clear), and a speaker ascends the stage to give a PowerPoint presentation on the subject du jour.
Avatars can interact through text or voice, and can even politely raise their hands to ask a question. The view each user has is determined by the direction his/her avatar faces. It's like a multi-national conference call with pictures and moving figures. ISTE employs 50 volunteer docents who rotate on the site, directing newcomers to the appropriate venue and answering any questions that normally arise when people are learning a new application.
As in real life, Second Life has a serious side and a less-than-serious side. On the one hand, your avatar can float up and examine the ceiling of a perfectly replicated Sistine Chapel; or tour the International Space Flight Museum; or see a tsunami simulation at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association's site. But critics, according to Ragan-Fore, complain that the bulk of the content on Second Life is "too frivolous, too sexualized and too inane." The same, however, could be said of the Internet, which for all its wonders and potential is frequently used as an improved delivery system for gossip and pornography.
There are, however, aspects of Second Life that defy understanding. People, with what can only be described as unusual psychological needs, have been known to get married and have little avatar babies in Second Life. Virtual parenthood does have some advantages, I suppose: not everyone is meant to be a real parent; plus every birth is painless and every child can be deactivated when it becomes annoying. Unfortunately, while I'm sure avatar infants have some modest entertainment value, they will never grow up to be any brighter than their parents.
Regardless, virtual worlds are guaranteed to have widespread business impacts if for no other reason than the fact that U.S. video game sales soared to $17.9 billion last year. That's a lot of kids spending a lot of time kung-fuing and shooting each other's avatars. When they eventually enter the business world, the only unusual thing about a virtual trade conference will be the lack of gun fire.
This year, COMMON is offering over 500 educational sessions, and hundreds of exhibitors will be hawking their wares. But how many sessions could a single person attend; how many exhibits could he or she examine in any detail? But imagine a virtual COMMON. Educational offerings run continuously and your avatar can attend any or all sessions at your leisure. Exhibition booths would not be limited to 160 square feet of floor space, but could be portals to entire technological worlds with avatars available to guide you. You could interact with presenters, ask all the brilliant or stupid questions you want (because avatars never tire of answering them), network with colleagues, and go out at night for a beer with some hot-looking or handsome avatar, just as you would in Nashville, but without the country music. And you can do it all while sitting at home in your PJs.
In the Hindu tradition, the word avatar refers to the incarnation of a higher being to the earthly plain that, in some respects, accurately describes Second Life residents who undergo a digital incarnation onto a virtual plain. But it is the programmers of virtual worlds who are the true avatars; weaving their higher intelligence into bits of code that fashion entire worlds delimited only by technology and imagination.
Imagination and technology, however, do make some strange bedfellows.
In a religious context, Indian spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba said this about avatars. "The Avatar appears to be human and we are misled into thinking of him in these terms, but the Avatar himself warns us against this error."
For all those having avatar sex, that's a good thing to remember.
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