One of the more controversial aspects of Virtual Immersive Environments (VIEs) is the use of avatars to represent ourselves. That’s understandable—when we’re just icons on a WebEx menu, we don’t worry about what those icons say about us. And when we appear on a videoconference, we feel pretty good that we’re represented accurately. But avatars are unique; depending on the VIE platform you’re using, you have a chance to customize the way you look—from very accurate, to complete fantastical. So should our avatars look just like us? Should they look like what we’d like to look like? Or should they be creative interpretations of us, which may or may not resemble us at all?
A popular concept, originally applied to robotics, is The Uncanny Valley. In a nutshell, the theory says that the closer a facsimile of a human gets to reality, the more repulsed we are by it. Think about the animatronic presidents at DisneyWorld. Creepy, no? But perhaps the easiest to understand definition of The Uncanny Valley came in an episode of 30 Rock from last season. Since this is a family blog, I can’t give you the exact context (but feel free to Google for yourself), but this snippet of dialogue between the characters of Frank and Tracy says it well:
Tracy: Tell it to me in Star Wars!
Frank: All right. We like R2D2 and C3PO.
Tracy: They’re nice.
Frank: And up here we have a real person, like Han Solo.
Tracy: He acts like he doesn’t care, but he does.
Frank: But down here, we have a CGI Storm Trooper, or Tom Hanks in “The Polar Express.”
Tracy: I’m scared! Get me out of there!
Frank: And that’s the problem. You’re in the Valley now. And it’s impossible to get out.
Most VIEs use a simplified version of a human being, ranging from extremely cartoonish to moderately cartoonish. If you’ve spent much time in Second Life, you’ll see extremes in every direction, from tools to make your avatar look and move as realistically as possible, to completely non-human avatars such as animals, mythological creatures, and aliens. But even the most realistic avatars don’t look very real. Right now, that’s a technological limitation. But do we really want our avatars to look just like us?