The Lessons of ‘Avatar’

Posted on Jan 8, 2010

Since James Cameron’s film Avatar hit the screens, it seems that there is no lack of discussion about the role virtual worlds play within the greater consciousness. Virtual reality applications are emerging in a number of delivery streams, from online branding to education. But what does this really mean for user experience and related disciplines?

Virtual Reality Goes Commercial

It wasn’t long ago that online populations were still coming to grips with the use of virtual environments and other “fantasy” applications. With a blockbuster movie entering the equation, we now see merchandise and spinoff products such as Web games dotting the digital landscape.

According to Kristen Nicole of Everything PR, McDonald’s and Coca Cola are working with Multiverse to develop branded virtual environments intended to increase social engagement around buzz from the film. Should these efforts be reasonably successful, it’s not impossible to envision more penetration of virtual products into mainstream commercialism.

Such applications have already been put to use in the field of education. Virtual worlds are being used to train health care professionals in medical universities, with students interacting through avatars to provide a level of authentic practice not found in traditional classroom instruction:

“As educators we are always looking for ways of making information realistic,” said Dr Khalid Khawaja, chair of the IT department at the American University in Dubai. “But we don’t always have the resources to simulate actual situations for our students.” Yet with technologies such as Second Life [a virtual world platform], these concepts are now very much feasible.

This brings to mind issues related to identity and interoperability. Picture a newly-formed Internet that is navigable not by menus and textual links, but rather an interconnected three-dimensional landscape made up of buildings and environments. The current paradigm of a “web page” may evolve into something resembling a room; the user may now be required to control an external digital persona, literally disembodied from the first-person point of view.

Avatars and Interaction Design

At first, controlling an avatar on a screen is a bit like manipulating a puppet. There is a buffer of anonymity that provides a safe disconnect from a person’s true identity or intention. This case study can be applied to people with autism spectrum disorders, who sometimes have difficulty communicating effectively or socializing in a physical context.

There are risks, however. Some users choose not to distinguish behavior between the realms of practice and putting into action. There are sexual and economic aspects to some virtual worlds, for example, that can be dangerous when a person lacks the ability to comprehend what is appropriate in a given situation. It is this sort of activity that has given Second Life its unsavory reputation.

Corporate organizations are increasingly looking to virtual worlds and gaming technologies to conduct online meetings. A 2009 Gartner research report estimated that by 2013, 70% of companies will have instituted corporate guidelines governing the use of virtual worlds. Just like IBM has done with their Sametime 3D platform, we’ll see more organizations investigate policies dictating behavior and appearance in 3D environments.

What this means is that interaction designers will now be required to deal with interfaces that are emotionally rich and complex. We will need to understand such factors as personal space, the effect of avatar-to-avatar contact, what establishes comfort zones within communication circles, and avatar “style sheets” influenced by virtual dress codes. We’ll also need to understand which computer-human interaction models are transferable from the 2D Web to these new forms of engagement.

Possibly of most importance, those of us working in the CHI discipline will need to broaden our understanding of online participation. With immersive sites populated by avatars, there is an increased emotional investment in choosing not only our online personae but also the way we connect with other users. In this realm, the user experience professional must play the role of psychologist with greater fidelity than before.

Avatars and People with Disabilities

In the book Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art, art historian Amelia Jones wrote about the body as an entity “transcending … through pure thought—or, more recently, via free-floating Internet subjectivities … heighten(ing) the tension between subject and object; (putting) into play the new relations of signification produced by the emergence of digital representation.”

Consider this notion of the body as it applies to virtual worlds users with disabilities, or to people with mobility difficulties. There is therapeutic value in distraction and the role it plays as a form of pain management. Patients recovering from serious injuries have the opportunity to escape their bodies, in some small way, and enjoy at least a temporary respite from the effects of impairment.

If this sounds like someone living in a fantasy world … well, perhaps that is a good thing. Fantasy is a form of Universal Design because it applies to disabled and nondisabled people alike. Everyone dreams about what they cannot do, whether it is the ability to fly a spacecraft, wake up in the morning free of pain, or to connect with someone other than a personal nurse.

The ultimate lesson to be gleaned from the film Avatar might be one of decorporealization — the point in which a media object, such as a photograph or Facebook profile, depicts a persona that is at once representative and interchangeable with the identity of one’s self. As users become more familiar with virtual technologies, the more comfortably they will associate with others through avatars. It is the responsibility of UX teams to understand and recognize this emerging trend until it becomes just another arrow in the designer’s quiver.