Today, the term "virtual world" means a lot of things to a lot of people. To many, it means 2D online social games like Club Penguin. To some, it means large-scale massively-multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft.
Virtual worlds like Second Life captured the public's attention but haven't managed to push the technological bar forward much since then. One could argue that virtual worlds have even taken a technological step backward, as most of the energy in the space these days is being put into building 2D Flash worlds for kids, or Facebook games played by the masses. It's big business, but hardly cutting edge. The biggest danger at the moment for those who want to see rich, 3D virtual worlds take off right away is the massive popularity of social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
The Second Lifes of the world missed an opportunity to give mass numbers of people the kind of personal connection they really wanted, and that the key is to find a way to mix the virtual and the real. Only a few minutes of Facebook can help people satisfy that need. But they will want more down the line, and that's something that fully immersive experiences will have to offer.
Facebook right now speaks to the deep human desire for real life connections and instantaneousness that new types of virtual worlds have to learn from. But the future's not going to be all text and Flash windows. Social networks like Facebook that put everyone in the real world one click away as the foundational piece that was missing from a lot of last generation virtual worlds.
Can you Trust an Avatar?
The current technology for creating computerized avatars for human interactions is relatively primitive; we tend to be surprised if a computerized representation can perform even vaguely human behaviors. Judith Donath of MIT's Media Lab argues that as programmers respond to the demand for more realistic human behavior in avatars, they will necessarily create the technology to manipulate human trust via the results.
Donath notes that even seemingly simple human behaviors are accompanied by collections of body language and expressions that can reinforce or undercut the messages we intend to send. Right now, even the most sophisticated avatars accomplish only a small subset of these behavioral collections. Although putting all of the components of these behaviors under user control is viewed as too complex, Donath cites work in which entire suites of behavior could be controlled by a single command. For example, an avatar commanded to end a conversation can nod its head, wave, and break eye contact. Users of such systems found them natural and more engaging, and they found their conversation partners to be more expressive.
Research is also revealing that other factors play into an avatar's trustworthiness and credibility. For example, simply making an avatar appear more human (including providing it with a clear gender) caused them to be rated more trustworthy. Other research has shown that trust can also be manipulated via more subtle techniques. Teams of people paid greater attention to an avatar that was created with a "team face," one that combined features from the members of the team. Individuals found political messages more persuasive when they were delivered by an avatar with a subtle resemblance to the listener's own face.