How to create an avatar for work-related virtual worlds

The use of virtual worlds is increasing for marketing, training and collaboration, according to a survey that Aliza recently covered. This may mean that there will be more enterprise use for Second Life, Open Simulator, and other online virtual environments. According to another survey, early adopters of virtual worlds are learning to use it for brainstorming and project coordination. This survey also suggests that those who use virtual world technology for recreation are likely to be among the first in their organization to explore the possibilities of using it for business.

As virtual worlds become as prevalent in business as they are in games and socialization, we need to learn how to present ourselves as effectively as possible in this medium. Since first impressions count in virtual teams just as much as they do in face-to-face teams, we need to take our virtual appearance more seriously. In the case of these immersive environments, appearance is based on our avatars.

How do we create avatars that are more than just placeholders? Which avatar features contribute most to the quality and richness of the conversation?

Eye gaze

While 3-D avatars can generate motion and activity, it doesn’t seem to be enough. Just because an avatar looks and moves like a person, it doesn’t mean that the quality of communication mimics face-to-face interactions. Avatars still can’t use subtle body language in the way humans do. But adding even something as mundane as head and eye motion, combined as “gaze”, can make a huge difference.

This was demonstrated in a study conducted in University College London. The research compared an avatar whose gaze was based on the conversation’s turn-taking (informed-gaze) and an avatar whose animations were unrelated to the conversation (random-gaze). They also compared these two types of avatars to other media, such as live video and audio-only conversations.

According to the study, even the inclusion of a relevant, expressive gaze created a significant improvement in the perceived quality of the conversation. When comparing to the participants’ sense of involvement, informed-gaze avatars barely had a significant difference from communicating via video.

What’s even more surprising is that the random-gaze avatar had no significant improvement over pure audio. This implies that a mere 3-D presence doesn’t automatically mean that the communication quality and richness improves. To be truly useful and engaging, avatars must exhibit behaviors that are relevant to the conversation — even if it’s something as simple as eye gaze.

Gesture and manners

Taking a step beyond eye gaze, it appears that other non-verbal manners, and our responses to them, persist in virtual worlds.

In a study from Stanford University, researchers observed how interacting avatars used interpersonal distance and eye gaze in Second Life. Based on their observations, non-verbal norms were still present, even if controlling them meant moving a mouse and keyboard rather than our own eyes and legs. The study, which focused on gender norms, showed that male-male pairs, like their face-to-face counterparts, maintained less eye contact and were further apart than female-female pairs. Also, when the “physical” distance between avatars was decreased, the avatars compensated by avoiding eye contact — just like people would in the offline world.

But it’s not just gender norms that persist in virtual environments. Cultural norms are still exhibited, even when the technology allows us interaction with people from different cultures. An experiment from Augsburg University in Germany showed that cultural speech nuances such as timing and pauses affected a viewer’s preference for an avatar. Their results showed that people preferred avatars that exhibited the nuances from their own culture. Perhaps this means that even if we are meeting other people in a virtual environment, we should still take cultural factors into account when we’re communicating.

How important are these cues? Quoting from a paper on the use of avatars in collaboration (PDF):

The ability or inability to maintain an “appropriate” interpersonal distance or the ability or inability to control one’s viewpoint so other avatars may be seen, among other things, will affect the feeling of being there together. […] Being in an environment where people feel connected is more likely to enhance development of trust and reduction of conflict, which in turn lead to more effective collaboration.

(Source: “Avatars, Text, and Miscommunication: The Impact of Communication Richness on Global Virtual Team Collaboration”, Columbia University)

Looking back at all the research, it’s a lot to take in. Doesn’t it seem cumbersome to have avatars that allow you to control all of these tiny factors? After all, in real life we barely even think about these non-verbal cues.

The answer is simple: it should be automated in our avatars’ programming, just as it is in our own minds and bodies. The more these virtual environments have an intuitive interface, and the more these communication nuances are automated, the more natural it will be for most people to successfully use their virtual world avatars for collaboration.

How do you create and control avatars?

Photo courtesy Flickr user cloud2013