Susan Wu on Virtuality

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by: C. Sven Johnson

Yesterday I spent some time watching the videostreams from SXSW Interactive. One of the more interesting discussions imo was the “Virtual Worlds and Virtual Humans: NPCs and Avatars” panel. For a recap, you can check out Clickable Culture (Link). For continuing thoughts from one of the panelists, I’d suggest surfing over to Susan Wu’s blog and reading her entry (Link) as I suspect those of you who regularly visit this blog will see some familiar thoughts popping up in her comments.

As this is an area of increasing interest to me, I wanted to add a few comments (okay, a lot) and post a few links. Here goes…

1. Identity is at the heart of everything:

I’m not sure Ms. Wu fully appreciates this line. Perhaps. It’s only that when she says “everything”, I suspect she’s coming from a humanistic perspective and talking in terms of people and their relationships. However, one of the reasons I’ve been especially interested in Identity is because when I coined the term “kirkyan“, I realized that multiplicity of the type I was describing also applied to people. Which is why I added the caveat that “a kirkyan can only be a non-living object“. If I hadn’t included that restriction, some curious things happen.

Recall that kirkyans (like stellayans and triblyans) are related to “spimes”. And as Bruce Sterling writes in his book Shaping Things (which I’m finally reading, btw):

The key to the SPIME is identity. A SPIME is, by definition, the protagonist of a documented process. It is an historical entity with an accessible, precise trajectory through space and time.


A SPIME must therefore be a thing with a name. No name, no SPIME.

The issue of Identity is particularly interesting. I once commented that perhaps the best way to describe a kirkyan was to use human twins as an analogy. There is a connectedness between “identical” siblings which is difficult to explain; a seemingly non-physical link. But there is also the problem many of us have with Identity when visual cues that help us form a distinction between two people are not available. Which is the “real” and which is the “other” applies to both twins and kirkyans. The answer depends on relationship… on perspective.

As to Ms. Wu’s comments regarding cognitive dissonance, as I suspect she’s been doing, I’ve been arguing the same point for years (especially when supposedly anonymous Wikipedia jokesters, acting in a way they wouldn’t under other circumstances, get outed). It’s the reason I no longer attempt to separate my offline from my online activities. It’s the reason Reputation is a topic I frequently discuss. It’s why Attention becomes integral to the issue. And it’s the newly-forming connections between people and objects (e.g. reLink) via electronic mediation which is so fascinating to me as a product developer.

2. We already all have avatars, we just don’t see them:

I’ve been following Jerry Paffendorf’s attempt to create a synthetic band (Link) with interest because in some ways what he’s doing is simply expanding and extending our real world “masks” into the electronic space (I’m ignoring the generative side of his project which is interesting; worth checking out if you’re unaware of it). The past couple of months I’ve been reading up on shock rocker Marilyn Manson because in some ways MM has (deliberately) pushed his flesh and blood avatar about as far as it can go into unreality (as part of what I suspect is an ambitious piece of performance art… that unfortunately may have been derailed after Columbine). But Manson is not alone. Celebrities are not “real” in many ways. Their names are often fictitious. Their images are altered; emotions fabricated and post-processed. News of their exploits is manipulated. They only exist to many of us through a two-dimensional viewing plane and electronically synthesized audio. For all practical purposes, these entities are avatars. We don’t know the real people; most fan(atics) couldn’t discern the real from the fabricated. Conversely, their avatars become a part of the real person, and in the end both are a part of one cohesive, intrinsic Identity.

I see a particularly valuable reason for pursuing extensions into online activities, and that was the reason for my recent “Age of the New Flesh” post (reLink). Most especially, if you’re an aging celebrity, what better way to extend your career? If you’re a band that’s lost its sex appeal, what better way to hide the years than by interacting through a heavily-mediated electronic representation? Those who can benefit from this opportunity are already pursuing these avenues; Duran Duran in Second Life. Korn in Virtual Laguna Beach, aso. There’s also news that Damon Albarn of the virtual band Gorillaz is reportedly working with Brian Eno, one of music’s (and the world’s) most impressive innovators. We already have “synthetic actors” and can expect that concept to be front and center when James Cameron’s film “Avatar” is released in the near future, but there hasn’t been much discussion of “synthetic musicians”. Not yet. But there will be.

3. Why Camera Angles are Important in Immersive Environments:

Ms. Wu makes some interesting observations. The bulk of my thinking about cameras is limited to trying to build 3D environments which mimic the real world but in which a third person camera POV forces distortions (e.g. ceilings and doorways are built higher to accomodate the camera view). And of course in Second Life there is the issue of using the modifiable camera view to “invade” privacy (for those who still believe they have any… in any context). Those are not especially relevant to what she’s discussing, so I’ll need to give her comments some thought.

4. Avatars are the most undervalued asset on the web today:

I agree and would add “most misunderstood”. The only other thing I’d caution here is that while people may have “subcontainers”, those are by no means secure. I once derived real world information (name, location, occupation, age, aso) for an anonymous and remarkably unpleasant forum poster with nothing more than a few questions on the forum and one carefully worded email. People who believe their Identity is hidden and behave in ways that adversely impacts their Reputation may find themselves in for an unpleasant surprise. When real Identity is linked to subcontainer, everyone needs to be sure the two aren’t in conflict.

Regina Lynn has a well-written piece over on Wired which I consider relevant. I suggest everyone take some time to read it: “The Internet Makes Us Naked” (Link).

5. Big learning from past experiences that is relevant to my VC work: Timing is everything

Although she’s referring to intangible media product, I think there’s some truth in this for tangible product as well since the two are merging:

We might academically know all the “best” answers, but having the “best designed” product isn’t nearly the sole factor in determining user uptake.


During my recent conversations regarding the design of real products for use with Web 2.0 applications (reLink 1, reLink 2), my point was that the Experience was the overriding issue; not the thing which provided “access”. And the fact is, we simply cannot design an Experience that everyone will enjoy. That’s the problem I have with some focus groups. A marketer will go in with a product line that commands a 30 percent market share and considers that outstanding. Yet if only 30% of the focus group participants like a concept then it’s considered a failure. I’ve seen this happen. The concept was the kind of thing people would either love or hate and only 4 out of 10 said they preferred it over the competition (and btw, a couple of dissenters were put off by it being a concept model, so there’s no telling what they’d have done if it had been production). But here’s the rub: those four were in love with the thing. They easily overlooked it being a non-functioning concept model. If they’d had seen the product on the shelf, they’d have bought it. Now if focus groups are indicative of the broader market, that equates to a 40% market share. Yet the concept was dumped.

The problem, I’d argue, is that because we can’t (yet) measure emotions, enthusiasm doesn’t count for much. Yet in a world filled with commodities that have the same features at equivalent pricepoints, what else is there if people can’t connect on other levels? That’s why I think this comment is relevant:

Being able to understand where consumers are today and what they are capable of absorbing is very important to creating successful products.

If companies don’t engage people on their level and develop a meaningful rapport so that they can begin to understand the immeasurables, then they’ll miss critical opportunities. It’s as simple as that.


6. Current observations of what consumers are responding to in the market:

I’ve not read Faith Popcorn in years, but I couldn’t help but read “together aloneness” and think wired/wireless “cocooning”. I should check to see if Popcorn has discussed that idea (probably has).

7. Why avatars are important:

Every major media company is going to try to port all of their brands into some sort of virtual 3D environment. These may be poorly designed, inferior products, but they are going to have the very real, very important impact of training the consumer to think about virtual worlds in a certain way.


I’m disappointed that Ms. Wu limits this to media companies. For starters, media companies do not, imo, have to do much of anything. Control is illusory. If endusers want a brand inside a virtual space they’ll take it there (remember, Second Life was full of illegal trademarks before any brand tried to enter the space). I’d recommend that brands only try to facilitate the activity. Companies don’t have to make the virtual goods; just announce that they have generic content which virtual world creators/modders can use to create new content for their preferred space.

This isn’t really any different than what some companies have done when asking people to create user-generated commercials and supplying video clips (some bands are doing this as well). Some people use the clips as intended, and some don’t (e.g. reLink). But by engaging users in this positive manner, they are arguably extending their brand and preserving their trademark.

Once people have a vested interest in the brand identity, let them police it for you. Companies already have affiliate programs… why not extend those to include virtual products? And if some griefer comes along and juxtaposes the brand with something the company doesn’t like, well, what would have stopped them anyway? More importantly, is what that griefer communicating a valid observation/opinion? Maybe that person had a bad experience with the brand or takes issue with the company in some way. Here’s an opportunity for management to turn a loss into a win… if they’re skin is thick enough to endure the criticism that *will* come. But companies… smart companies… will welcome this and understand how to capitalize on the Attention.

This doesn’t apply just to intangible media, but to manufacturers as well. Perhaps especially to manufacturers since their product – including some reasonable facsimile – is potentially both tangible and intangible thus allowing people to connect to it on other levels.

Well, I’ve rambled long enough. Probably said a few things that don’t make sense or aren’t sufficiently thought through, but that’s okay. Rip it up. Time for me to eat something and then catch more from SXSW.

via Out to Pasture

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