Thursday, April 21, 2011

Body Language vs. Attentive Use of Voice and Text Tools

Photo by: Mariis Mills 2011, used with permission

Yesterday I attended Jeffrey Ventrella's presentation about his new book "Virtual Body Language" at the Arvel meeting in SL. Jeffrey is a graphics and animations programmer. He has explored technological solutions to improve virtual body language in the virtual world There, where he was a co-founder. While working at Linden Lab he developed flexi prims. His book Vitual Body Language: The History and Future of Avatars: How Nonverbal Expression is Evolving on the Internet, proposes the direction and influence that evolving nonverbal expression might take.

Virtual body language has much potential in virtual worlds to promote engagement, connection between avatars, immersion and presence. And Ventrella has both the technical skills and creative mind to make simulated body language a reality.

However the event raised some issues for me: the first having to do with body language and the second having to do with the communication channels, voice and text.

Virtual body language. First of all I believe that with further research we will find that body language is highly overrated. These are questions I have regarding body language:

  1. Isn't one of the benefits of virtual embodiment the opportunity to mask our pajamas, AND the many unconscious messages our bodies send that are either misunderstood or unintentionally socially destructive?
  2. Do we prefer artificial body language that serves as a social lubricant but sends a message that we don't mean (think AOs that make us more animated but suggest sexual intentions)?
  3. Subjects of research are often people not experienced in virtual worlds and so cannot imagine suspending disbelieve to the point of immersion. Isn't it natural that the uninitiated might show a preference for (perhaps superficial) resemblance to real life?

I'm not saying that improvements to virtual body language lack merit. I definitely want my avatar to be able to automatically shift focus to the person who is currently typing or voicing. Control over pointing will also be a great advance adding to the benefits of being in virtual space. I'm only arguing that the importance of duplicating real life in general, and on this dimension in particular, has not yet been proven.

Communication channels. Some virtual worlds - Second Life among them - offer better-than-real-life affordances. Multiple simultaneous communication channels is one of these. It takes some practice but it is possible to listen to a presenter who is voicing while holding a rich text discussion with the participants, as well as send out brief IMs to particular participants. Likewise a presenter skilled in these multiple channels (Tom "Boellstorff" Bukowski is a master) Can speak and simultaneously follow either the discussion or at least note questions. Real experts (read Tom) can even send IMs in response to particular comments.

Ventrella showed little understanding of the power of these tools. Second Life is probably not his platform of choice - so I don't blame him for that. However this became a problem during the Q and A, as a few voices filled the airways and the many avatars with text questions did not get "heard." Ventrella might have concluded, in the absence of body language to the contrary, that most of his audience was AFK. And a frustrated audience member (read me) or two might have felt a disconnect with the presenter.

Presence and engagement are multidimensional experiences. While we work to improve Virtual World experience as educators and designers, we may focus on only one dimension - that which we can effect. But it is important to acknowledge and use the others or we shall fail. (also posted on the ArvelNing.

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