Avatar Technology

by Moya K. Mason

Avatars represent a brand new meeting of human communications. The virtual worlds are worlds where people come to socialize, where people come to build cities, work, and try utopian experiences, to build together and learn together. - Bruce Damer

Introduction

Modern society is preeminently governed by technology: information technology that emphasizes automation and computerized information services. As such, management of knowledge is crucial in this age of information explosion. Gone are the days when information professionals such as the early librarians had to hoard away humanity's intellectual treasures. Currently, the opposite is true, and there is so much information pervading society that we must find new mechanisms for managing these manifestations. These trends can also be seen in large companies, multinational corporations, and world governments. Certainly, the use of some form of knowledge management, incorporating the integration of both tacit and explicit forms of knowledge are needed to be put in place, but is there anything more that the business community can do in its quest for higher profits and its desire to somehow control the multitudes of information it is faced with? What about integrating avatar technology?

Definitions

There is little agreement on a simple definition for avatars, but originally the word comes from Hindu mythology and is the name for the temporary body a god inhabits while visiting Earth. Avatars can also denote an embodiment or concrete manifestation of an abstract concept. In relationship to cyberspace, Chip Morningstar first used the term to describe the visual embodiment of users in the early days of Habitat back in 1985. Avatars, as Bruce Damer states:

Represent the real time embodiment of people in cyberspace and the fundamental avenue to meaningful community and a sense of place and memory, online for the general population and for the business world. Avatars and inhabited cyberspaces are in their early phases in terms of knowledge management, but they are here to stay.

Simply put, an avatar is a graphical image of a user, a facsimile representing someone else on a computer screen. Think of an avatar as an alter ego, a body double in the virtual world of cyberspace. Importantly, an avatar can become your presence in the virtual communities growing inside two and three-dimensional virtual worlds online. In addition, an avatar can become a representation of an entire company, a liaison of sorts. For example, Genius is an avatar that greets and guides people in the fourteen Temps & Co. employment cafes in the Washington, DC area. Steve Etteridge, the owner of Careers and Company wanted to shift the way workers and employers found each other, so he decided to build fourteen, high-tech employment cafes where people could come to work on job skills. After walking into one of the virtual cafes, they are greeted by the Genius, the avatar that resides on their Intranet. He adds a very personalized touch to an impersonal, often difficult environment.

Another kind of avatar is sometimes called an agent, a character, or a bot. This is a graphical personification of a computer or a process that is running on a computer. It can also be a visual representation of other software processes.

Overall, there seems to be a problem with terminology. Some people are very hesitant about using the term 'avatar' because of its gaming connections, and prefer instead to use bot or intelligent agent. Others use these terms interchangeably. No universal agreement on terms exists, although most creators refer to an avatar as a character driven by a real person, while a bot is a character driven by a program.

What are Some of the Prototypes?

1. The goal of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center's Office Avatars project is to investigate the use of autonomous avatars in the workplace. In particular, it is interested in the role of an avatar as a personal representative that can provide useful information or other utility when the avatar's owner cannot be present. Avatars provide a number of benefits over other media for personal representation, such as personal web pages; more channels of communication; avatars can express emotion through facial expressions and body posture, and can point at artifacts being discussed.

In addition, avatars lend themselves to collaborative user interfaces allowing a user to engage in a dialog with the system in order to accomplish a task. Avatars can also act as personal representatives to maintain a sense of presence and cohesiveness within workgroups when members are absent, or act as personal representatives to maintain a sense of presence and cohesiveness within workgroups when members are absent. Furthermore, Office Avatars can play a role in corporate strategic knowledge capture, by enticing authors to encode their knowledge for the benefit of their co-workers. They can be particularly effective when co-worker information is very time critical (as in engineering development teams) or in which a sense of human presence is important (as in sales).

2. Schlumberger is preparing itself for the next century by investing in an Intranet that will connect its global offices and allow all of its employees around the world to instantly connect to company data and archives. Schlumberger chose Planet 9 Studios to create a three-dimensional model to visualize the vastness of its Intranet cyberspace, an AI prototype guide for the front end of the company's Intranet search engine. Each platform in the "Knowledge Hub" is connected to a specific area of archived information: from company financials and budgets, to drilling records and geological reports, data can be easily retrieved from the virtual world with the click of a mouse.

In order to provide a user-friendly interface, Planet 9 Studios created an information angel, Knowah, who follows users in the space. In the future, this avatar will be endowed with agent technology in order to fetch records and perform searches. The clickable Java-based interface is easy and intuitive for all users. To date, the project has received ten million dollars in internal funding.

3. A health insurance company in Europe wants to have a virtual community for its customer base, a place where people can visit its headquarters. This is another example where avatar technology is used for customer relationship management. Since it is costly to maintain support for global clients, a company can use a virtual representation of its headquarters and have it staffed twenty-four hours a day. Customers can ask about travel health insurance and family planning, and all kinds of complex issues.

4. World Movers uses an avatar as a guide in Softbanks online version of the World Movers trade show. Softbank wanted to be the first moneymaking landlord in cyberspace. It envisioned a world where people could go to get information on networking products. The company commissioned Planet 9 to build the Cyber City. A central square was built and ringed by high-rises for large corporations and a mall for smaller vendors. The first two "tenants" were Novell and Intel. Planet 9 also built interiors for both companies that function as online marketing offices.

What Can it Do for Us?

For one thing, avatar technology is much better than video conferencing. Companies like Boeing complain that they use video conferencing and NetMeeting, but find that it is missing things. For instance, they cannot have things such as files inside their virtual meetings and find those involved only beam views from one desk to the other. Their meetings cannot get beyond the superficial level, and they find that inadequate considering the caliber of their business. Avatars can express emotion through facial expressions and body posture, and can point at artifacts being discussed. In other words, people can bring their stuff, like files, to an avatar meeting. Avatar technology was the answer for Boeing.

The technology also works well with Intranets that do not support video conferencing traffic such as one of Dean Witter's divisions. It studied using avatars to represent employees on an Intranet communication system, and had found that VRML avatars could work with their existing systems quite nicely.

In addition, avatars can prevent information bottlenecks due to personality clashes. Think about how long it can take for someone's idea to flow through an organization. Are there bottlenecks? Bottlenecks can be a hardware problem, but can also be attributed to a person who is stopping the flow of information, someone with an agenda. If avatar technology can bring useful information into the office by allowing someone to hide his or her identity from someone with an agenda, then everyone wins.

How are Other Governments Using the Technology?

European countries are employing avatar technology and future scenario work in management planning. Often, the facilitator is an expert interactive software designer, who has involved the use of games and simulations for role playing and brainstorming purposes. The following is based on an actual facilitation that took place a few weeks ago at the request and expense of a European government:

Stage One: The design process was brilliant. The facilitator was open to anything and everything to make the strategy sessions work. Prior to the first meeting he extracted some business plans, and interviewed the key actors and the current stakeholders.

Stage Two: Behind closed doors the stakeholders acted out the whole Knowledge-Exchange within a Guilds concept by using a game the facilitator had devised, wherein all involved have an avatar they don and a role to play. For instance, one scenario had something to do with the timber industry. Stakeholders reinvent themselves into loggers, carpenters, builders, architects, a United Nations PERN, etc. "By and large, an eye-opener for all concerned, a new way of working, indeed. A very illuminating experience."

Stage Three: Another set of games was designed to produce a series of different scenarios. What do we want such and such to be? We came up with six, all different scenarios, and all were profoundly interesting in terms of the business implications.

Stage Four: A brainstorm to argue about which scenario(s) to adopt.

Stage Five: A process in which the facilitator comes up with 'The Design' that is then presented to allow for reactions and identify the core teams that would begin to implement new strategy.

Stage Six: They all switch avatars and try it all over again.

Why are Governments Taking Advantage of Avatar Technology?

Governments have no choice but to keep up with big business and the tools that are used to conduct transactions. They realize that as more companies and corporations use avatar technology in online environments, the private citizen will expect that government to follow suit and make service and alternative forms of service a priority. Since there already have been major changes due to the decline of the nation state, the rise of multi-national corporations, privatization of government agencies, outsourcing some operations to save money, deregulation of government, global communications, and a move towards a business-oriented government, government has little choice but to keep up with the latest technological trends, and is in a good position to take advantage of some of the latest technologies being developed by private companies.

And by employing avatar technology and incorporating it with future scenarios, it can help us see the other side of issues: the proverbial 'walking in another's shoes.' From studying the role-playing in the previous section, one can see that avatar technology is not just a way a person can hide their identity. It is much more powerful than that because it actually allows another viewpoint to enter the picture. If the issue is cutting down an ancient forest, for example, and all involved really take their roles seriously and mix and match them, a person can literally 'walk in another's shoes.' Walking in someone else's shoes is an integral part of what it is to be human. Alas, it something many have forgotten how to do. Avatars can help lead the way back.

The Technological Reality

Unlike virtual reality technology, two-dimensional and three-dimensional virtual worlds require no special gloves, visors or hardware gear. Of course, if these types of accessories were necessary, avatar technology would not be as conducive as it is for the corporate world. And avatar technology can offer its share of technological benefits. For example, it is less bandwidth-intensive than regular Internet applications.

However, there are some technological issues that must be addressed if avatars are to become commonplace in the business world. For instance, virtual worlds do not exist on the Internet. As a result, software that will allow access must be put on desktops. At the same time, because the underlying technology is commonplace -- TCP/IP packets, UDP, FTP, sometimes HTTP -- often, it is as simple as downloading a browser plug-in.

Considerations and Clarifications

Avatar technology is a fairly new horizon and there is little consensus on what it will mean for society in the 21st century. There are some skeptics when it comes to this kind of technology, and that is partly due to the lack of information available. Others relate its use only to the way it is being used in chat rooms across the Internet: allowing people to hide behind an image, and even to change their character or sex. For some, this can be very good because it allows them to have more than one persona, and can therefore, allow innovative ideas to flow on corporate Intranets by freeing those who are cast in one corporate light and who are afraid to break the illusion.

Howard Rheingold makes an important point in the following remarks: "Frankly, I think avatars are only interesting to a small fraction of the online population. In other words, it is NOT significant in general, and I would hazard to guess even LESS significant in organizations. My prediction is that avatars will fail or will end up being trivial in knowledge management. Authentic community building -- not a technical, but a social matter -- is, IMO, far more important." Is he right?

This writer believes he is partially right because he is pointing out that using avatar technology should not be a game that people play, nor should it be used to attain anonymity and help people to carry out destructive behaviour on company Intranets. Pretending we are someone else is just not good enough, if that is the only angle, nor does it build community or allegiance. Avatar technology can help certain individuals break out of their shells, and that is good, but as has already been pointed out, the best scenario is for us to don our avatars so that we can see every side of an important issue, and to prevent bottlenecks. That makes it a very powerful technology.

Conclusions

Why do avatars, or virtual representations of living creatures and their networked environments, represent the next major wave in online communications? First, there are global considerations. Being global means keeping up with global technology if you do not want to be left behind. With many corporations and national governments having offices and off-site employers stretched across the planet, there is a definite need to use better technology than the very limiting video conferencing to network.

There are also corporate and governmental clients to consider as well, especially since electronic mail and telephones can only do so much. Avatar technology can help save money in travel costs, and remove many barriers that travel restrictions do present. One of the barriers is lack of time - some people just do not have the time to drop everything and take a trip, particularly if it is one that will take several days. Once big corporations like insurance companies decide to have avatar hosts and other employees waiting at their Internet offices to offer service and information, the government will have to follow suit.

Service in the 21st Century better mean better service because that is what people are going to expect to receive. Better service means becoming more flexible and offering customers as many ways as possible to serve them. If that means allowing them to visit corporate headquarters or your government department virtually, and be aided by a friendly avatar who is interesting and full of information, then you comply. Products from companies such as BlackSun Interactive, Integrated Data Systems, and Superscape coincide with a growing awareness of business uses for avatar technology. It is expected that future generations of online users will enter bot (agent) or avatar (live people) inhabited spaces for help in the customer support sense on a regular basis.

This technology can help save money in the customer service telephone infrastructure and long distance fees, especially in a few years when so many more people will be on the grid. If customers or information-seekers can go to virtual offices and collect information from friendly avatars, government could save huge amounts of money in connection with their 800 numbers.

Prototypes such as those offered by Xerox in the Office Pals project help with filtering information and multi-tasking considerations and free up time by taking care of the more mundane chores. Better use of time, and using technological fixes to improve the way we do business will be key in the coming decade. As can be seen, avatar technology has strong ties to Knowledge Management. Avatars can surely help smooth the flow of information through Intranets and Internet sites because they will provide the filtering, tuning, adjudication, and other flow controls on information. Networks will address the chaos of information overload by providing individuals with the ability to tailor how they communicate with others. It will be done by gathering, managing, and organizing information so it will be more accessible and more useful to individuals than ever before.

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