Category Archives: avatars

Second Chance for Second Life?

thumbby Hap Aziz

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education website, Jeffrey R. Young has an article titled, “Remember Second Life? Its Fans Hope to Bring VR Back to the Classroom.” I do remember Second Life, and I actually used in some college courses I taught about eight or nine years ago. It was primarily a tool where I could gather with students for additional lecture time outside of the classroom, and often it was a combination of socializing and course content Q&A. Fortunately, my students were comfortable with technology (the course was on the subject of digital design), otherwise I would not have been able to provide the technical support to get the students signed up, logged in, and comfortable in the environment. The technology is smoother now, but I wouldn’t recommend it for students not confident in their online computing skills.

The history of Second Life is interesting in that it began as a possible game world framework, but the development environment was so robust, SL morphed into an open-ended virtual space that really had no particular purpose. This was both its advantage and its curse, as enthusiastic users that saw potential in the technology worked at finding a purpose for the platform. Many higher education institutions acquired space in SL, and educators used it for lectures, office hours with remote students, and a variety of other activities somehow connected with learning. And while the individual users may have designed unique personal avatars, the education spaces, for the most part, were representation of real campus locations (or at least could have been real). There are a number of reasons SL was unable to sustain itself at its heyday level of engagement, and Young explores them in his article in connection with the latest tech wave of Virtual Reality innovation. Second Life, in fact, is looking to ride the new VR wave with its Project Sansar (indeed, if you go to the SL site, you’ll see that you can explore SL with the Oculus Rift, which is a step in that direction).

Will the addition of 3D VR breathe new life into Second Life? As a technology, there is no question that VR has great novelty out of the gate. But I still believe that without some sort of meta-narrative point to drive engagement, SL could go through another bubble-burst cycle. By “meta-narrative,” I mean that Second Life itself needs to have a point, rather than offer itself up as an environment where users can do anything they want. Why enter a virtually real world to “just hang out and look around” when we can much more easily accomplish that in the really real world?

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Reimagining Online Education, Continued…

by Martin LaGrow

In the past, I have postulated on this blog that the current model of online education is obsolete.  The expression Web 2.0 has been in use for at least eight years to describe the interactive nature of the internet, but the world of academics has made scant effort to embrace it.  While online education relies on dated, asynchronous tools such as email, discussion boards, and drop boxes, even our leisure pursuits have become vastly more interactive and vibrant…think Farmville, Second Life, and even beyond.  When I say we need to think “outside the box,” I am not talking about a tired cliché.  I am talking about that box under your desk that plugs into your monitor. In other words, online education does not have to be confined to your computer. Why not take advantage of the other box sitting next to the TV in virtually every household—the gaming system?

When evaluating any process, device, or system, I like to ask this:  If there was nothing already in existence, no preconceived notion of how it is ‘supposed’ to work, and we invented it today, what would it look like?  Sometimes you can hypothesize about such things and it avails you nothing because you are restricted by what is already in place.  Take, for example, the highway system.  You can’t just erase what’s already in place and start over if you want to redesign the traffic flow of a city, much less the whole country!  But in online education, the same can’t be said.  Nothing prevents us from starting over from scratch, and designing it based on the tools that are in existence today.  We are not committed to the established pathways of the past in a physical sense.  Starting over is scarcely more difficult than pressing the ‘delete’ key!

My next focus in reimagining online education will be to discuss the advantages of utilizing common elements of Web 2.0 and gaming systems simply to spark discussion.  These elements include avatars, interactive environments, RFID interactivity, and the introduction of gaming systems as academic tools.  Today I want to focus on avatars.

The current model of learning management systems is hallmarked by detachment of student, instructor, and peers.  It is possible for students in many online learning platforms to pass a course and earn credit without ever having a real-time conversation with instructor or peers.  Sometimes this gap is bridged by requiring at least one conference call or online session.  Even so, students who prefer to ‘lurk’ can remain as disconnected as they choose.  Teachers who choose not to share personal information or even a profile picture are easily perceived as an uncaring, non-present grading ‘robot’ by students.  It can be difficult for instructors to have a real understanding of who students are, and to take their work in context when they cannot visualize the student as an individual.  Consider teaching thirty or more students in an online course, and having no knowledge of their identity other than a name—and what if you have four Kimberlys in your class?  Yet this matters to students…A distance educator at Boise State University explained that her research about online learning revealed that students frequently complained about having an unengaged or uninvolved instructor as a reason for their dissatisfaction (Magna Publications, “Distance Education Retention: The SIEME Model,” Retirement & Retention, December 2005).  This is partly a byproduct of the flat nature of online instruction.  So how can avatars promote a more personal connection in online coursework?

The avatar, in its most basic form, is a representative incarnation of a person.  Before you participate in virtually any social media interactive game such as Farmville, you must first design your avatar.  The importance of the avatar is not that it is an exact replica of the individual, but that it is a representation of what the individual wishes to present about himself or herself.  This makes it a much less intimidating tool than using a webcam, for example.  The self-conscious student (or instructor for that matter) can share only those elements of identity they are comfortable to share.  Overweight? Bad acne? Gender confused? Afraid of age discrimination?  Your avatar can represent you in a way that you are comfortable.

When using most LMS’s, students and instructors are unaware of the ‘presence’ of others engaged in the course concurrently.  In an interactive room where an avatar represents the presence of participants, interaction between student, peers, and instructor becomes natural.  A student is far more likely to ask the teacher questions if they can ‘see’ the teacher in the room, rather than having to send an email and wonder if it will be received and returned.  By establishing a presence in the room at regular intervals, instructors can create an environment that promotes interactivity.

The web service Voki ( provides instructors with the ability to create an avatar and give it a voice.  While this still lacks the interactivity of a robust, multi-participant environment such as Second Life, it may be a beginning point for instructors who are interested in providing a new ‘face’ for students to connect with in their course. If students were to interact the same way, discussion posts could actually become just that—discussion posts, not written papers gleaned and reproduced from a textbook or a website. This tool is still asynchronous, but it represents a step in the right direction—true interaction that fosters the development of personal connection and dialogue between students and instructors.

In my next article, I will elaborate on the potential of gaming systems as academic tools.

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Skylanders and Online Education: Flying the Friendly SkyEd Skies

by Martin LaGrow

Recently I posted a blog called Reimagining Online Education in which I proposed that academic institutions should emulate social media games and take learning management systems in a more interactive direction ( After writing the blog, I purchased the Activision game Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure for my kids (OK, maybe for myself too), and quickly became enthralled. It is engaging, self-directed, self-paced, rewards mastery, and progressively scaffolds on previous achievements—everything online education should be. It begs the question, “Are there elements of Skylanders game play that would translate to a new online learning environment?”

First, a little background on the game. Skylanders is a first of its kind—a toy based role playing game that works across multiple platforms including an online component. What make Skylanders unique is the “Portal of Power” and action figure-type characters that bring life to the game.  The characters work through RFID. Each one stores in its memory statistics, points earned, unlocked features, etc. This enables the game player to use their figurines on multiple systems, all well progressively advancing its statistics and abilities. The character can be reset at any time if the user wishes to start over.

Aside from the portal and characters, game play is very much like any other RPG. The game plays out in a structured order—users must accomplish one chapter before proceeding to the next (but can repeat chapters at any time). The game player is accompanied by a number of additional characters that provide guidance and direction, even reminders if the user seems to lose focus on the objective of a challenge. And interaction consists of more stimulation than just arcade-game style action, though that is abundantly available. The user must complete several logic-based puzzles and solve problems along the way, keeping the game mentally stimulating. Various tokens, gems, and rewards push the gamer to travel every path, seek out and defeat every challenge, and ultimately provide a sense of achievement by rewarding mastery.

Finally, there is an online interactive piece that is separate from console play. By plugging your portal in to your Mac or PC, you can participate in a Sims-type world, where you develop your own living space and interact with other Skylanders in real time.  Challenges exist there as well, but the game play does not relate to the console version of the game.

The possibilities for leveraging this kind of interaction in online education are limitless. Imagine an online program where each course is a software ‘world,’ accessible via game console or live online environment. Each course world consists of chapters including content and application. Students demonstrate mastery of a level by completing quizzes and solving problems. Success and achievements are stored locally in the students RFID based avatar, which can be uploaded centrally at regular intervals. Interaction and guidance are provided by guide characters. In an Algebra course: “I see you’re having trouble solving the equation.  Why not try balancing before solving?”  “It looks as though you’ve mastered slope/intercept. Would you like to practice again or do you accept the final chapter challenge?”

For students requiring real interaction, an online commons area can provide as much or as little as they’d like. Different areas would be opened to students based on which courses they take. Instructors could host live office hours by meeting with students in pre-established meeting areas of the commons.

Today’s student is accustomed to interaction in virtual worlds for recreation. Menu and text presentation are not easily engaging them in course work. But from Mario Brothers to Zelda, they are no strangers to spending hour after hour mastering skills and garnering achievements on a console or computer. Present learning management systems are not tapping into this intrinsic trait. When they do, you may see a whole new level of achievement and mastery from students who just don’t want to turn off their Algebra course and go to bed


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Establishing Avatar Believability

by Hap Aziz

In my last entry, I began exploring the topic of what makes an avatar believable: I considered abstraction as a piece of the equation. The responses I received to that post encouraged me to dive deeper into the subject, and I pulled out some research I did for believable non-player characters in computer game/simulation environments that I think is applicable to this discussion. My thinking now is that there is a threshold of believability and therein lies the key—abstraction and concreteness are secondary issues. So what is the threshold of believability, and how do we create avatars that pass it? Ultimately, it’s important to realize that if avatars are to effect the behavior of the people that drive them, how avatars interact with other avatars becomes important–and we can greatly enhance the virtual environment by populating it with autonomous (non-player) avatars. So I’ll spead to that here as well.

While creating avatars that pass a requisite threshold of believability will present multiple design and implementation hurdles to overcome, it is important to keep in mind that the threshold is one of subjective perception rather than objective reality. Pimentel and Texeira (1993) observe that the realism of created avatars does not have to appear as actual people in the physical world; rather the idea is to achieve just enough realism so that disbelief can be suspended for a period of time. They state, “This is the same mental shift that happens when you get wrapped up in a good novel” (p. 15). Loyall (1997) states, “Believability is similar to the intuitive notion of adequate characters in traditional non-interactive media such as animated films or books. In these traditional media, characters are adequate if they permit viewers to suspend their disbelief” (p. 113).

Reaching the threshold of believability will depend upon several factors including the subjective perception that an avatar’s behavior is independent of external directives (i.e., the avatar should not obviously be programmed if it is non-player driven), the avatar should be predictably rational (or justifiably irrational as appropriate), and the avatar should be able to communicate naturally with other avatars. Taken in combination, these factors establish intelligent behavior as a foundation for believability. In addition to the behavioral characteristics of believability, there are the physical characteristics of believability such as avatar appearance (including the level of animation realism within the simulated environment) and quality of voice synthesis (if voice synthesis is used rather than a text-based or live voice communication system), as well as unique cultural characteristics applicable to the avatars within the context of the simulation scenario.

An initial review of the literature indicates an innovative approach to modeling avatar behavior. In her 1998 text titled Affective Computing (p. 2), Rosalind Picard of the MIT Media Laboratory states “The evidence is mounting for an essential role of emotions in basic rational and intelligent behavior. Emotions not only contribute to a richer quality of interaction, but they directly impact a person’s ability to interact in an intelligent way. Emotional skills, especially the ability to recognize and express emotions, are essential for natural communications with humans.”

Picard goes on to create a framework that she terms “affective computing”; that is, a form of computing that relates to, derives from, or otherwise seeks to deliberately influence the emotional state of the user. In creating a system by which avatars may interact with users within certain emotional contexts, we address a critical component of the problem of making the avatars “personalized, intelligent, believable, and engaging” (p. 184). Loyall asserts that an avatar’s ability to problem solve intelligently and competently is not important as whether the avatar is “responsive, emotional, social, and in some sense complete” (p. 113). As described by Picard there are five emotion components of a completely affective computing system:

  1. Emotional behavior;
  2. Fast primary emotions;
  3. Cognitively generated emotions;
  4. Emotional experience: cognitive awareness, physiological awareness, and subjective feelings;
  5. Body-mind interactions.

The third emotion component, cognitively generated, is especially useful within the context of affective computing. The current state-of-the-art and experimental systems (including several popular computer entertainment RPGs and simulations) are based upon models that synthesize non-player avatar emotions through cognitive mechanisms. Computational methods facilitated through numerical analysis, database manipulation, and probability and statistics are well suited to negotiating the rule-based systems that are the most common functional inputs for cognitive emotion synthesis. It is therefore logical to conclude that emotion synthesis through “computationally friendly” cognitive mechanisms represents the best approach to implementing avatars that are capable of intelligent interaction with human-driven avatars. Specifically, there are two theoretical designs germane to computationally facilitated emotion synthesis: the Ortony Clore Collins (OCC) Cognitive Model and Roseman’s Cognitive Appraisal Model.

The original intent of Ortony, Clore, and Collins in publishing their 1988 book, The Cognitive Structure of Emotions, was to delineate a cognitive appraisal model of emotions. While they felt there was a necessity for AI systems to be able to reason about emotions, they never contended that machines would come to have or need to be able to programmatically represent emotions. Perhaps ironically, their model is ideal for programmatic synthesis of emotion and representing avatar emotional response; in fact the OCC model is considered the standard for synthesizing emotional responses in computers (Picard, 1998). They proposed that there are three aspects of the world that elicit either positive or negative emotional responses from people: events that are of concern to us, the actions of those individuals or entities that we perceive to be responsible for those events, and objects in the world around us. This structure is the basis for the specification of 22 emotional types as well as a rule-based system used to generate these types. Consider that once an emotion appropriate to a situation or in response to a player action is synthesized, the non-player avatar will be able to react believably in response to the emotional condition established.

Where does this all lead? I’m very interested in establishing what I call a “Believability Quotient” to measure avatar believability. I’m going to propose to do this within a Dungeons and Dragons-like point system where avatar characteristics are listed and ranked. I’ll thank my friend David Arneson for leading me down that path. Look for that in the next blog post.


Loyall, A. B. (1997). “Some Requirements and Approaches for Natural Language in a Believable Agent.” In Trappl, R. & Petta, P. (Ed.), Creating Personalities for Synthetic Actors: Towards Autonomous Personality Agents. Berlin: Springer.

Ortony, A., Clore, G. L., & Collins, A. (1988). The Cognitive Structure of Emotions. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Picard, R. (1998). Affective computing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Pimentel, K. & Texeira, K. (1993). Virtual Reality: Through the New Looking-Glass. Intel/Windcrest McGraw Hill.

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Avatar Effectiveness Requires the Suspension of Disbelief

by Hap Aziz

The concept of avatarial experiences modifying human behavior in some sort of reverse feedback loop is likely a necessary part of the requisite believability factor. That is, if we as real people are to be manipulated (or at least behavior modified) by our created avatars, we need to be able to suspend disbelief regarding their virtual identities in order to accept them and to succumb to their influence. I think that our disbelief can be mitigated through the use of technological advances in the areas of display and interaction.

Let me start by framing the counterpoint with an exaggerated example of abstraction: a game of strategy and warfare, a game where royalty commands armies with the mission of decimating the enemy. The game is ancient and known the world over; the game is chess.

The point that I’m making is that chess is very much like the games played on modern computer and console systems in terms of challenge, value of play, and so on. The substantial difference is that chess is completely a game of abstraction and intellect. The pieces are representative of the positions of power they occupy in the game, but they do not evoke any particular emotional response based on appearance, mannerisms, etc. As a result, there is little emotional connection with the pieces as other than chits in the negotiation of play. And this means that there is no (or very little) avatarial connection between player and piece.

Maia Garau (2006) asserts that mediated interaction between person and avatar in a virtual environment is improved by leveraging our ability to communicate non-verbally. Simply put, people want to see character expression, and the more highly defined the expression, the better able we are to connect and identify with the avatar as well as understand and empathize with it. So back to our Chess pieces: there are not non-verbal cues; no expressive eyes, no posture of fear or bravery, and so on. There is only abstraction of the piece’s role, and this is not compelling for us to develop a relationship with the piece.

My take:

The application of technology to entertainment has yielded ultra-realistic game characters that are able to communicate intent and action through visual and auditory cues that are natural to human beings. While this trend was a logical outgrowth of regular improvements in technology, there has been the unintended consequence of people becoming emotionally entangled with these onscreen characters–hence their classification as avatars rather than game pieces. Without thinking, we become involved with our game characters to some degree, and that degree appears to be increasing as the level of sophistication in avatar appearance increases. This is not a coincidence, and at least some preliminary research suggests why this is happening.

The thought that now strikes me is that there may not be any requirement for the physical form in order for humans to establish, build, and ultimately nourish relationships–at least beyond a certain point of physical development (i.e., for babies, toddlers, etc.). In other words, we value a form and an image that we can conceptualize and hold in our minds, even if we cannot hold that form in our arms. Could it be that we are hard-wired to actually value the “content of our character” above those physical aspects–race, gender, age–that lead to bias?


Garau, M. (2006). Selective fidelity: Investigating priorities for the creation of expressive avatars. Avatars at Work and Play, v. 34: 17-38.

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Decoupling Avatar Appearance and Behavior

by Hap Aziz

Let’s explore further the topic of the affects of avatar behavior and appearance on both the user as well as other participants in the avatar relationship. First, I need to point out that there are two types of behavior:

  1. Actions that are not related at all to the appearance
  2. Actions that are constrained by appearance and that result from appearance mannerisms; i.e., those behavioral quirks that are interwoven with appearance

In the last post I began to explore the manner in which appearance and behavior can be (and often are) separate and isolated from each other. The definitions seem obvious: appearance is how we look while behavior is what we do. I went on to suggest that behavior is often determined or constrained by appearance—as individuals we do many things based on societal expectations of what we should be doing. It may be as extreme as picking a profession based on physique—the big guy who plays college football, or it may be something more subtle but equally as constraining.

There is an additional element to the appearance/behavior relationship, and that is the idea that the physical, often involuntary behaviors we all exhibit have a deep connection with our appearance and how we are perceived by others. Bailenson and Beall identify this (and state that it typically received very little attention) and discuss it in the context of the Transformed Social Interaction model as a form of nonverbal communication. For example, how someone else’s avatar makes eye contact with your avatar (or you) will go a long way to determining how you accept that avatar, and, ultimately, how you accept that avatar’s actual person behind the scenes. This is not a trivial matter: Chartrand and Bargh (p. 893) provide evidence for something they term the “Chameleon Effect.” That effect explains that people are more likely to be influenced by others that exhibit non-verbal behavior that mimics our own.

Bailenson and Beall go on to describe “digital chameleons”: avatars that mimic behavioral appearances and that have the effect that Chartrand and Bargh describe. However, my take is that the idea of digital chameleons can (and is already starting to) go much further than Bailenson and Beall originally envisioned based on the newer technologies such as motion capture (even facial motion capture), 3-D modeling techniques, and so on. As a part of the mimicry process, audio mimicry can contribute to the chameleon effect, so consider the extent to which actual people can be recreated through digitized audio for precise reproductions.

Though it may seem farfetched at this point (or perhaps somewhat gimmicky), the stimulation of the olfactory senses would do a tremendous amount to create the chameleon. Smell is our oldest sense, and the power of scents to send us back into particular memories is compelling.

Where does this lead? I would predict a type of profiling technology where a user (or set of users) is quizzed on a range of measures, and avatars are then built to specification with the intent to evoke particular responses—either positive or negative. Consider the question of people taking on avatar personas in order to gain an understanding of another race, for example. If the avatar meant to expand the person’s consciousness regarding race is also imbued with the characteristics of that person’s mother, say (assuming that was a positive relationship), then the power to transform understanding is multiplied greatly.

At the same time, the power to manipulate can corrupt as well. This is brave new world stuff with which we’re playing.


Chartrand, T.L., & Bargh, J. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. 76(6): 893-910.

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Further Examination of Avatar Ego Investment

by Hap Aziz

There is a desire in many of us to mold characters as we see fit: in literature it is what authors do with characters, in games it is what developers do with the player characters, and so on. Bailenson and Beall (2006) observe that the activity of extending their own identities was a common practice well before the development of the computer—in fact, this extension activity has always been a fundamental way in which people express themselves. People have been using both abstract and tangible ways to extend their identities. However, prior to the computer age, identity extension was a time-consuming and expensive activity, while it yielded very minor change results. It’s with the introduction of the computer into our playgrounds of personality that we see what significant identity extension techniques and technologies people can develop.

I asked the question in a recent entry, “how deep does ego-investing go?” with the eye toward understanding the types of boundaries there are in the human-avatar experience*. Bailenson and Beall discuss a phenomenon they term Transformed Social Interaction (TSI) which they define as being a mechanism to improve or decrease the quality of interpersonal reaction based on several characteristics. These communication characteristics appear to me to be strongly related to human components of ego, and thereby TSI becomes a proxy for understanding contributing factors to ego investment. These are the components making up TSI:

  • Sensory abilities – here we can augment the normal human senses in an avatar, or we can actually create new sensory abilities based on information gathering from within our virtual environment (for example, we could give an avatar a “weather sense”)
  • Situational context – this is where we can change the scale or point of view within a virtual environment, even to the point of viewing a scene from the perspective of someone else’s avatar
  • Self-representation – here we decouple the appearance of the avatar as well as the behavior of the avatar from the human connected to the avatar in order to make changes

I like the TSI mechanism because it gives me a frame of reference to break down the elements that contribute to ego investment; in my (admittedly limited) observations, people tend to build their avatars in these three areas (although the situational context category is an ongoing process rather than a “stop and change” action).

Of the three areas, I believe that ego investment resides most in self-representation: both the appearance and behavioral aspects. Bailenson and Beall go into greater detail about the decoupling of appearance and behavior, and I think that is worth a deeper look. I want to get my head wrapped around why the decoupling is important (I have the intellectual aesthetic sense that it is, but it is important to be able to articulate why). Also, there are likely ramifications to the lack of decoupling which I’m trying to grasp as well. I will follow on the topic of decoupling appearance and behavior up in an upcoming blog post.

*On a side note, I wonder what the relationship is between the human-avatar experience and the human-computer experience. The obvious premise is that those comfortable with computers are more likely to experience strong avatar reactions.


Bailenson, J.N., Beall, A. C. (2006). Transformed social interaction: Exploring the digital plasticity of avatars. Avatars at Work and Play, v. 34: 1-16.


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