Monday, June 22, 2009

I remember reading Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and his description of the Metaverse, his conception of virtual reality and online communication, thrilled me. I knew in many ways it was more realistic than Gibson's cyberspace. For instance, Stephenson described how people can choose their own avatars and it's a sign of a newbie or at least a non-programmer to have an "off-the-shelf" avatar, and indeed we see this in places from static online forums all the way to Second Life

One thing nagged at me back then: Stephenson realized that there's no reason not to teleport in virtual reality, but explained that the programming rules forbid it.

You can't just materialize anywhere in the Metaverse, like Captain Kirk beaming down from on high. This would be confusing and irritating to the people around you. It would break the metaphor... Once you have materialized in a Port, you can walk down the Street or hop on the monorail or whatever.

This is unrealistic in a virtual reality which is supposed to be the predominant way hackers like Hiro interact with each other online. Today, online gamers tolerate some limitations on teleporting in game environments like World of Warcraft or Puzzle Pirates, but even there, friction caused by do-nothing travel time is minimized. And in a more general communication milieu -- Web forums, Facebook, Twitter -- there isn't a single, limiting place. I can "be" on two forums at the same time on Ravelry, open two or more Facebook windows and chat with multiple people and I'm "there" with them all for some value of "there". Not only is there the ability to go immediately where I want to be in most online fora, but it doesn't even involve leaving the other "places" I already am.

Ok, here's another piece of the picture that didn't bother me in 1993 but does today:

Most avatars nowadays are anatomically correct, and naked as a babe when they are first created, so in any case, you have to make yourself decent before you emerge onto the Street... [Hiro sees] A liberal sprinkling of black-and-white people -- persons who are accessing the Metaverse through cheap public terminals, and who are rendered in jerky, grainy black-and-white.

This assumes an architecture where the client renders their own avatar. Even in that architecture, a proxy for a public terminal could render a classier avatar. Low-res displays would more likely affect the receiver than the sender -- somebody accessing the online universe through a poor public terminal might see every other avatar equally low-res, but their own avatar could still appear fantastic to people on good computers. It's complicated.

I guess the lessons are that today's online fora are less like the real-world than we could imagine fifteen years ago, and future online fora are less like the real-world than we are yet capable of imagining. We're still sending messages that look like paper mail and have envelope icons, and we still think of "bulletin boards" as a real model. We haven't integrated IM or twitter-like experiences fully into other experiences. Today, I'm downloading the Adium beta to see how twitter "what I'm doing" messages and community are integrated with IM and whether that improves on the old IM concept of presence in a significant way. Trivial interface changes in these sites and software can be significant in how people use them.

To borrow Ted's analogy when we touched on this over coffee today, we're in the same phase cinema was in when a movie camera was pointed at a stage, and a stage play acted upon it: the unique affordances of cinema weren't discovered immediately and are still being discovered even today. With online interaction, we're only beginning to discover how different it is from experience in the physically-limited real world.


orcmid said...

Nice. Haven't seen a thoughtful comparison like this before.

Barry Leiba said...

What I'd like to see is avatars that can make natural sorts of gestures and facial expressions that are appropriately related to what one is saying. I've seen someone make a technical presentation on Second Life, and the avatar made random hand gestures, head nods, and body movements that didn't fit with what the speaker was saying, and it very much detracted from the presentation. It would have been better with audio only.

Bill said...

Hi Lisa,

This couldn't sound more like comment spam if I tried, but it's actually an honest attempt to contact you, the blogger behind "Not Invented Here". Would you be so kind as to email me at and I promise not to be a botnet? Or at least not so far as I'm aware.


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