A new book, Infinite Reality, predicts that 3-D conferences with avatars are coming – big time – as consumer technology is suddenly catching up with the work taking place in virtual-reality laboratories in academia.
The authors point to three developments in the past year: the Microsoft Kinect system, the Nintendo 3DS gaming device, and the triumph on “Jeopardy!” of I.B.M.’s Watson computer.
“These three events have been paradigm-shifting for avatar conferences,” says Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, the book’s co-author and founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “Virtual reality scientists have been waiting for these events for decades — and the technology is finally ready for the living room and the cubicle.”
The Kinect tracking device, sold for $150, shows that it’s now practical for you to control your avatar simply by moving around the living room — no more need for special suits or elaborate sensors in a lab. Nor do you have to wear special glasses to see in 3-D, -- the new $250 Nintendo 3DS beams a three-dimensional image to the naked eye.
With these technologies — and a few tricks already been done in the lab — you can sit at a virtual conference table and exchange glances with the avatars of the other participants. Unlike the two-dimensional avatars that are already convening on Second Life and World of Warcraft, your avatar would appear to be three-dimensional, and you’d feel immersed in the scene as you looked around at the other participants from the eyes of your avatar.
The book predicts:
1) Without leaving your living room or office, you’ll sit at three-dimensional virtual meetings and classes, looking around the table or the lecture hall at your colleagues’ avatars.
2) Your avatar will be programmed to make a better impression than you could ever manage.
3) While your avatar sits there at the conference table gazing alertly and taking notes, you can do something more important: sleep.
Now that computers like Watson have gotten so good at emulating humans, avatars could be programmed to go on autopilot during a class or meeting, according to Dr. Blascovich and Dr. Bailenson. In “Infinite Reality,” they imagine a slacker named Dave who sleeps in while his avatar attends an 8 a.m. corporate meeting.
“Dressed impeccably in a digital Italian suit, the avatar was programmed to be a perfect participant,” they write. “It laughed at jokes (taking cues from voice inflection changes of the other avatars), nodded in all the right places, and dutifully recorded the details of the discussion.”
To make a really good virtual impression, Dave could exploit a tactic that has been demonstrated in experiments involving politicians' faces. When researchers partially morph a person’s face with a politician’s, that person becomes more likely to approve of the politician — and has no clue why.
As long as the ratio of the politician’s features remains below 40 percent, the person doesn’t even realize the photograph was doctored.
Therefore, you could conceivably create an avatar with a face partially morphed with that of anyone in the room that you wanted to impress. In fact, you could customize it so that each person saw a face containing some of his or her own features. That would presumably make you more popular with your colleagues or clients — who, of course, might be using exactly the same strategy by displaying avatars morphed with your facial features.
There’d be a lot of love in the room, assuming that any of the avatars’ owners were actually awake.