A rather understated, but wonderfully rich contribution to The HBR List was made by Judith Donath as long ago as 2008. Called 'Giving Avatars Emote Control', the article observes that avatars (as used in Second Life, for example), have limited expressiveness. Well, we knew that. They currently offer one or more representations of ourselves, which may be wildly different in age, gender and appearance from our First Life selves. That's already fun and interesting and raises questions about how we feel about other people, who know our First Life selves, seeing the types of persona that we choose for our Second Life selves. But, of course, as Bailenson et al. have noted, our avatars can really only represent what's going on for us emotionally insofar as we choose to have them say things.
Current research is going in two directions. First, it's looking at ways of having our avatars represent our emotions visually, so that we can, for example, cue our avatar to look recognisably angry if we tell it to. There's lots of research on this and Marc Fabri has written a thesis on the subject. Actually, because we control it, this is called performative representation. We can pretend to be angry, or not to be.
The second direction is towards finding ways of having our 'interior-form' avatars automatically represent our emotions by measuring what's going on with our skin, with our bodies and in our minds (changes of temperature, heart rate, neurochemical and electrical activity, etc.).
As Judith Donath says, this opens up all sorts of possibilities in situations like teamwork and negotiation. We could, of course, select different levels of self-disclosure, but it would be apparent to others which level we had chosen. She could have gone on to speculate about further applications. In a trial or criminal investigation, the judge or investigator might get more and better information from an interior-form avatar than from the human being. The same could be true in an interview or a performance review. Or in a late-night conversation between husband and wife. Parenting might be transformed if the avatar of the 'but Mum, she started it by pinching me' child could be interrogated. And so, a staple of science fiction writing - telepathy - as exemplified in Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man seems to become a possible reality.
At first sight, this possible reality seems to lead towards something like a tighter police state, a more rigid hierarchy and so on, where those in power can see what we're thinking as well as what we're doing. But research is already showing how it could lead to more productive phobia therapy and better help for people with autism. Might it generate more honesty and openness, to the point where relationships of all sorts were more fruitful when conducted between the participants' fully self-disclosing avatars than between their First Life selves?
[Update, Brain Computer Interfacing -- BCI -- may have quite a lot to contribute to this. Neurobonkers explains. See the link below.]
Credits and references:
Jeremy Bailenson, Dan Merget, Nick Yee and Ralph Schroeder
Judith Donath (go to p.31)
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