On Being an Avatar: Mirroring, Violating, and Being Together

The biggest objection I hear when I tell people about meeting friends and colleagues in VR is this: “But you’re not yourself, right?  You’re an avatar.”  I had that response when I first thought about it, too.  Wouldn’t you rather be yourself on a video platform like Zoom or FaceTime, rather than someone else in VR?  Isn’t seeing someone’s actual face over video (and them seeing yours) essential for the feeling of truly being together?  Without being able to see facial expressions, body language, etc, isn’t talking in VR more like talking on the phone than over a video conferencing platform?

Being represented by an avatar might be second nature to gamers, but to most of us, it’s not.  Usually, being represented by a cartoonish human figure—even one with my hair color and in clothes I’ve chosen—is a way to preserve my anonymity and reserve; it’s not how I’d naturally expect to feel the feelings that go along with actually being present with someone.  But for all that, I’m a convert.  I find interactions in an environment like AltSpaceVR to be uniquely intimate.  The feelings of physical presence amaze me—sometimes uncomfortably so.

In fact, the discomfort is the first thing I notice.  My colleague from Norway is standing uncomfortably close to me.  But it’s not him, I tell myself.  Nor is it me.  He’s in Oslo.  I’m in Philadelphia.  Our avatars are both wearing the same innocuous outfit, looking at each other with the same big eyes.  If I could see myself, I’m not sure I could tell our avatars apart.  But I can’t see myself—I’m looking out of my own eyes, at an immersive, 3D environment, and there’s someone standing about 12 inches in front of me.  It just doesn’t feel right.

I recall the viral 2016 blog entry by Jordan Belamire entitled “My first virtual reality groping.”  What’s worse is that it felt real, violating,” she writes, “This sounds ludicrous to anyone who hasn’t stood on that virtual reality ledge and looked down, but if you have, you might start to understand.”  It didn’t take long after her blog entry for personal space “bubbles” to become table-stakes features in VR social environments, because of how the threat of violating our avatar feels like the threat of violating us.   

But this was my Norwegian friend, and he’s not violating me.  His friendly voice greets me through my headset and he waves one of his too-close hands.  I wave back.  Then he waves with his other hand, and so do I.  Suddenly I feel yet more uneasy intimacy.  Maybe you played the “mirror” game in elementary school, where you stood across from your partner and mirrored their movements?  This is that–virtually, the feeling of intimacy and presence are the same. 

I recall how the mirror game made intuitive sense of “mirror neurons” the first time I read about them.  While the science isn’t clear and the neurology is controversial, the idea that following (or leading) another’s physical movements builds intimacy and strengthens the psychological connections between you makes intuitive sense.  Separated by thousands of miles, we’re waving our arms together, in a dance at great physical distance but at an uncanny psychological proximity (maybe this is why one of the orientation experiences Oculus puts its new users through when you’re setting up your headset is a game in which you dance with funny looking virtual partner).   

Another reason why our avatars’ cartoonish form may not be an obstacle to feeling present has to do with the sophisticated way that the headsets manage the audio.  The first thing you notice is that your friend’s mouth moves when they talk.  It’s far from perfect, but it feels like it’s good enough.  The real magic starts when the stereo sound adapts instantly to movement—when I move away from my friend, his voice gets softer.; when I move closer, it gets louder.  When I move to the left, his voice becomes more louder in my right ear (the ear turned towards him) and softer in my left.  Even when I’m standing still, if I turn my head (or if he does), it changes the sound.  I find myself speaking softly in VR, like he’s right next to me.  The rhythms of speech are more like those in casual conversation than the stilted rhythm often found in a video conference call, where turn-taking tends to be more formal and stiff, and where we tend to project our voices, as if talking to an audience instead of a few people near us.

Screen Shot 2020-04-11 at 1.20.15 PM
An AltSpaceVR avatar

We may not always have to occupy cartoonish forms.  A Facebook Reality Labs blog post here describes a project aiming at lifelike avatars based on gigabytes of images of the real us: “Using groundbreaking 3D capture technology and AI systems, Codec Avatars could let people in the future create lifelike virtual avatars of themselves quickly and easily, helping social connections in virtual reality become as natural and common as those in the real world. While avatars have been a staple of video games and apps for years, Sheikh believes incredibly accurate virtual representations of people — those that can perfectly capture a wry smile or a furrowed brow — will be a game changer.”

But until then, it seems that we prefer to be a bit cartoonish rather than being a bad facsimile of a real person (see the Uncanny Valley ).   Others, of course, prefer to be rabbits or pirates or actual robots—some use avatars to untether themselves from their race, gender, age, or species.  But between the voice, the big eyes, and the awareness that there’s another human being right there, virtually next to you, the spell of presence never ceases to surprise me with its power.

I’m not the first one to notice any of this (see this 2018 article or Peter Rubin’s book on the subject of being present with each other in VR).  Nor am I the first amateur to map it to neuroanatomy (“It hacks your visual cortex,” writes Rubin here, “As far as your brain is concerned, there’s no difference between experiencing something on the Rift and experiencing it in the real world.”) As much as I’d caution us about actually thinking we understand what’s going on, I’m convinced that we’re describing an experience with undeniably power–an experience that is widespread, if not universal.  I’m a middle-aged guy, not a gamer; I have a graduate degree in psychology, not computer science; and I’ve spent a lot of time studying how people think, feel and act, alone, and together.  And if I was once a doubter, I don’t think I am anymore.  The more I experience how it feels to interact in VR, the more potential I see.

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