Category Archives: virtual identity

The Significance of Experiencing Learning

thumbIn a previous blog entry, I wrote about the future of education as depicted in Science Fiction, realizing even that genre does not often share a vision of the learning enterprise. And when it does, the teaching and learning endeavor is protrayed most often as rather unchanged from the present day approach. Yes, there are exceptions such as the direct-to-brain information downloading technique utilized for skills training in The Matrix, but that’s rare. (Hogwarts from the fantasy world of the Harry Potter stories is an absolute disaster as an education model.)

If we’re going to imagine the future, it is the direct-to-brain (d2b) downloading process that seems to be most interesting as a truly new education paradigm. Not only would it effectively address learning outcomes achievement, it would dramatically reduce the time required to acquire knowledge and master skills (at least as the fictional process is defined). To be sure, there are obvious technology hurdles to be overcome: creating the brain-machine interface and determining how to encode information so that it can be accessed through the standard memory recollection process are two of the more obvious challenges. But let’s say we crack the technology. Could people actually learn that way and ultimately retain what they learned?

To run through this thought experiment, it would be helpful to use a fictional model that defines the process and provides a framework for our assumptions. While the concept of digital compression of information fed into the brain has been used several times in Science Fiction (Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, Whedon’s Dollhouse, the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy), it is the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Inner Light” that is based on the central theme of the digital information transfer and what actually takes place in the “learner’s” mind during the process.

Written by Morgan Gendel, “The Inner Light” is about remembering the experiences of a lifetime without having to live through that life in real time. Briefly, the technical scenario within the plot is this: an alien probe finds Captain Picard and creates a wireless link to his brain. Through the link, the probe downloads an entire lifetime’s worth of experiences into Picard’s brain. From his perspective, it is all completely real, and he thinks he is living that life: having children, learning to play the flute, suffering the death of his best friend, having grandchildren, and watching his wife grow old and eventually die). In real-time, however, only 25 minutes has elapsed. When the download is complete and the link is broken, Picard discovers the entire life he lived was just an interactive simulation of experiences placed in his memory… and that he now knows how to play the flute as he learned it in his simulated life.

What interests me about this particular concept of d2b downloading is that it addresses the context of experience in memory. Whatever a person learns, whether it is the alphabet, discrete facts such as names or dates, complex lines of reasoning, or sequenced physical skills like playing the flute, the act of learning is wrapped in a broader experience of what the person was doing during the learning activity. How important is this, especially when it comes to having the learning “stick”?

In 1890, Williams James noted that human consciousness appeared to be continuous. John Dewey observed much the same thing, and in 1932 wrote:

As an individual passes from one situation to another, his world, his environment, expands or contracts. He does not find himself living in another world but in a different part or aspect of one in the same world. What he has learned in the way of knowlege and skill in one situation becomes an instrument of understanding and dealing effectively with the situations which follow. The process goes on as long as life and learning continue.

Dewey is telling us that learning is a continuum, and lessons learned (formal or not) become the foundation for lessons yet to be learned. Certainly this makes sense to us intuitively, and there is research indicating pre-established schema expedites more rapid memory consolidation in the brain. Which is a way of saying that we learn things more quickly if we already have a context for understanding what we’re learning.

But what are the implications for d2b learning as Picard experienced? What Picard experienced, while not logically flowing from his past life (he was, after all, just “dropped” into a new life story), was a narrative built upon the concepts which he already understood: marriage, friendship, birth, death, and so on. And when he learned a particular skill–playing the flute–it made sense to him in that he already knew what a flute was, what playing a flute involved, and so on. There was not anything going on so “alien” that it would not fit into the pre-existing schema he had been constructing since his own birth.

Perhaps more significant is that the skills that Picard learned had a subjective real-time element even though the simulation was digitally compressed. In Picard’s mind, he learned to play the flute because he actually practiced playing the flute, over years in subjective time. Therefore, when he picked up the flute in the real world, he was drawing on the memories of his experience of practice. It wasn’t that he just woke up with a new skill that came out of nowhere.

Interestingly, there is evidence that mental practice can improve real-world performance at some activities such as sports or music. One study had participants mentally practice a sequence on an imaginary piano for some time daily, and the participants displayed the same neurological changes as those who practiced physically instead. It’s possible that mental practice and physical practice both activate the same brain regions involved in skills learning.

Experience, though, is multifaceted, and it is not simply a dispassionate sequence of events, recorded and played back in some documentary style. In learning, there is the idea of how engaged the learner is with the subject matter at hand, and again it doesn’t matter if the topic is the Pythagorean Theorem or Lord Byron’s poem “She Walks in Beauty.” Jennifer Fredricks talks about three types of engagement that may influence learning: cognitive engagement: what we are thinking about our learning; behavioral engagement: what we are doing while we’re learning; and emotional engagement: what our feelings are about our learning. It seems difficult to imagine that a simple d2b data dump would involve all three of those categories, unless the d2b transfer allowed a person to live what was being learned.

Admittedly, this is all conjecture over a Science Fiction idea, and for now, there is no way to run any actual tests. The potential for d2b learning is intriguing in that it may provide a solution for many of today’s education challenges, provided the technology is even possible. At the same time, it presents many questions regarding the true nature of the learning process. We are analog beings that make use of our senses in real-time to learn from the world around us. If we somehow could bypass our senses and compress years of experience into minutes of transfer time, how would we interpret the experience? How would we remember what we learned, and what would those memories feel like to us? Based on what we know today, I’d say that learning is not possible without experience. Whether it is real or virtual may not matter, but without an experiential framework, transfered information is just noise without meaning.


Filed under consciousness, direct-to-brain, education, experience, future technology, Hap Aziz, learning, narrative, neuroscience, Science Fiction, simulation, Star Trek, technology, virtual identity, virtual worlds

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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Filed under avatars, computer games, creativity, education technology, future technology, Learning Management Systems, online education, simulation, technology, video, virtual college, virtual identity

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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Filed under avatars, games, simulation, virtual identity

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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Filed under avatars, games, motion capture, simulation, virtual identity

Creating Custom Avatars with

by Hap Aziz

I’ve made quite a few posts in the last week or so on the subject of avatars, and I thought it might be a fun New Year’s activity to create my own custom avatar. While browsing through old posts at, I came across an informative post on using a freely available web-based tool called Voki for creating custom animated speaking avatars. The post demonstrates the ease of using Voki, and it also provides resources that are useful for educators. I hope to experiment with Voki for some content that I could actually use in this blog, but in the meantime, I’ve provided the video tutorial that provided–you can see it in the video feature area on the right side of the screen. It’s about six and a half minutes long, but it’s well done, so that’s meaningful time spent working through the tutorial.

If you do happen to create any custom avatars, please feel free to share their locations on this blog. I’d love to take a look.


Filed under avatars, education technology, simulation, virtual identity

The Two-way Street of Player-Avatar Relationships

by Hap Aziz

When dealing with the subject of avatars, we can think of identity in at least two ways: there is the non-virtual form of identity, in which the player thinks of him or herself in the traditional sense of self. That is, “I am me.” This concept of identity predates any thoughts of the modern avatar, and is not at all technology dependent. Then there is the virtual identity, perhaps most commonly thought of the identity of a player-character within a game environment (also more broadly thought of the identity an individual has built for him or herself through all manner of computer interaction: through social media, online communications, interactions through online courses, and so on. My blog entries have helped me shape my virtual identity in the education space, for example). For the context of this discussion, we want to examine virtual identity as that which facilitates the player-avatar relationship.

In addition to virtual identity and non-virtual identity, Zachary Waggoner identifies a third type of identity—projective identity—which he frames as the transitional state between virtual and non-virtual identities. That is, it is the phase during which the game player makes the mental leap from his or her own non-virtual natural behavioral state and the state that the player adopts for the game environment. It appears that the required amount of transition time is related to the level of identification the player has with the avatar character—back, again, to the concept of ego-investment.

I find this exchange between Waggoner and one of his study subjects (identified as Shiva) to be of particular interest (pp. 150-151):

Shiva: You get so much control over that character. I got to do whatever I wanted. I felt very connected with that character I guess and it was just, I don’t know, that’s what’s with you the whole time, the character. You kill things, you wander, you’re stuck in the wilderness, and you have to talk to people, but you’re always with your character so that is what stuck out to me.
Waggoner: Who was [Shiva’s avatar] in your mind?
Shiva: I guess mostly an extension of me.

The game Waggoner chose for his study (Morrowind) is a large, open-ended environment that allows players a tremendous amount of freedom to act in either ethical or unethical ways. It even distinguishes between (and appropriately rewards or punishes) similar actions, such as murder (not a good behavior) and killing in self defense (an acceptable behavior). Waggoner found that his study participants made some efforts to determine the limits of the ethical engine within the game so they knew what their boundaries would be within the game.

In this context, it was the avatar’s environment that modified the non-virtual behavior of the game players, at least during the time period of game play. I am very interested in going a step further and determining if in-game ethical boundaries ever have an effect on player behavior in non-virtual situations. In other words, does a player’s existing sense of self always trump his or her avatar’s identity?

In a practical sense, this behavior modification could take place; after all, if a player learns a fact of history inside a game environment, that bit of knowledge sticks with the player regardless of any game play participation. It is entirely possible that an attitude or behavior acquired in-game could just as easily stick with the player after the game situation is over.


Waggoner, Z. C. (2007). Passage to Morrowind: (Dis)locating virtual and “real” identities in video role-playing games. Ph.D. dissertation, Arizona State University, United States — Arizona.


Filed under avatars, ego-investment, games, simulation, virtual identity