_Uncanny Valley_ is a term used to describe negative reactions to any artificial human form that approaches the realistic. Doctor Masahiro Mori described The Uncanny Vally Effect as a result of testing:
“…people’s emotional responses to a wide variety of robots, from non-humanoid to completely humanoid. He found that the human tendency to empathize with machines increases as the robot becomes more human. But at a certain point, when the robot becomes too human, the emotional sympathy abruptly ceases, and revulsion takes its place. People began to notice not the charmingly human characteristics of the robot but the creepy zombielike differences”.
The Uncanny Valley Effect continues beyond mechanically-produced humanoid representations to the synthetic. In 2005, Mori revised his theory by adding a category that includes an artistic expression of human modelling and “something more attractive and amiable than human beings”.
In synthetic environments, humanesque avatar adoption illustrates just how the Uncanny Valley Effect diffuses in line with Mori’s revised principle. In-world participants [both game oriented and otherwise] display comprehensive identity projection in order to achieve workable immersion. This projection promotes the adoption of synthetic character “skins” as extensions of consciousness, rather than presenting as externalised automatons. Players then view their avatars as an Ego [in the Freudian sense] elongation as opposed to a humanoid mirror.
Emily operates as an amalgam of a geophysical and synthetically rendered entity: her face is mapped to that of her human counterpart, a live actor also named Emily. The resulting augmentation accelerates beyond the Uncanny Valley dip [as seen in the graph above] via minuscule asymmetries that aren’t scaled high enough to break the beauty-symmetry barrier. Her face is unlined, unmarked, yet still convincing as a heightened variation of a “real” actor. Emily embodies the concept of the digitized _Übermensch_; an iconic mix of synthetic + geopresenced perfection.
Could the technology used to produce Emily extend to the creation of augmented identity “sets” where tailor-made avatars are worn according to contexts/moods? Could the future of the cosmetics industry involve the mass production of illusionary facial constructs applied as easily as make-up [think: a mixture of a holographic caul and synthetic rendering]?
The web was built on openness and designed from the ground up to enable sharing of code – view the source from early web pages for examples. Yet it seems that already Second Life content creators want strict restrictions on copying, even going so far as to support the DMCA. So, while the DMCA is decried in so many cases (such as the RIAA suing elderly women and children who don’t even own computers), Second Life content creators want to call upon it for protection. There are currently multitudes of useful business models built around open source and free sharing. Why do users of Second Life, who have the ability to create a new world and rethink the negatives associated with our geophysical one, want to rely on an obsolete notion of copy restriction? This acts to simulate the production of physically-templated objects instead of assisting in the understanding of new models which are based on (and flourish from) copying, sharing and building commons.
Ultimately, this is my argument: much like the alter-globalization movement wants to create a new world, an “other globalization” not based on corporate profit at the expense of the millions who are exploited, synthetic worlds present us with an opportunity to imagine and craft the kind of worlds in which we want to exist. While many argue that Second Life duplicates the problems of sexism, racism and homophobia that we see in the geophysical world, I would argue that we can’t ignore the way that corporations are shaping our synthetic environs.
If the example of the web shows us anything, it is that users and developers can ensure some degree of freedom for the next few decades. While net neutrality threatens the future of that openness – as phone companies demand laws that guarantee the prevention of copyrighted films from being downloaded – new technologies like wireless mesh networks offer the possibility for hope. One of the most important and wonderful properties of the net is that problems are identified and routed around. It seems that synthetic worlds are at a point where some routing is necessary.
There are components ready to create a decentralized universe of virtual worlds: open source clients (Indra – the official SL client) and open source server software. OpenSim seems to be the current decentralised contender (which offers some SL interoperability) plus others including WoW server software. With the creation of Google’s _Lively_ we’re already seeing a lack of concern with interoperability through name collisions or name theft incidences.
Who stands to benefit from this kind of lack of interoperability? Obviously corporations with the goal of controlling the only available synthetic world would benefit enormously from halting interoperability. Users, then, need to demand interoperability or create systems that operate as such and make those that are not unusable. As users of virtual worlds and synthetic environments, we are responsible for the choices we make about what software we use. Users of Microsoft software are as much responsible for the Microsoft monopoly as is the company itself.
What stands in the way of creating interoperability? One major component of the web’s success is open standards. We need open standards in – and for – synthetic worlds. IBM and Linden Labs are currently working on developing such standards [see: Architecture Working Group].
Friends of mine who are daily Second Life users describe it as just another social networking site – just another place to chat with their friends, buy a cool outfit and have a nice house too. In this way, one can see that the real value of Second Life is in making synthetic worlds accessible. While the initial openness of the web allowed anyone to write html and make websites, one could argue that it was only with MySpace that a true explosion of web authoring took place. MySpace allowed every kid to suddenly have a web page because of the combination of simplicity (fill out this form, pick your song here, upload your photo here) and social value (express your vanity here, look good to your friends here, show how cool you are here). Second Life does something similar; playing to sociability and degrees of vanity through the use of an easy interface designed primarily for creating and buying 3D objects. Perhaps Google’s Lively will demonstrate whether ease of use and a lack of catering for creativity is the adoption benchmark for the next synthetic world interface.
If we think about the synthetic environment of Second Life as a metaphor for the web, where are we at today? In the early days of the web, only universities and advanced scientific laboratories had websites. I remember – as a kid – buying an issue of Scientific American that came with a map of the whole web, all 100 or so websites on a foldout poster. The web then proceeded to become popular with the rollout of Netscape, but really gained mainstream status through the development of _America Online_ (AOL). Now, I’m well aware just how awful America Online is; I’m not sure how many people continue to use it as ISP’s and web hosts began to dramatically multiply and offer alternative services.
I would argue that we are currently at the AOL stage of synthetic world development; beyond the stage of university and military applications but mostly dominated by one or a few corporations (think: AOL or Compuserve as roughly parallel to Linden Labs, Blizzard).
In this metaphor, I’m trying to be clear about distinguishing particular components. At this point, Linden Labs’ main function is serving a synthetic world as the client is open source. Yes, they’re also developing the server software, but the _client_ is open source. This is much like a situation where a single company is acting as the only web server where customers build their websites, just as users of MMO’s build their synthetic homes and characters. Yes, AOL did more than host user’s websites, but for many people their homepages were on AOL’s servers. Similarly, Linden Labs does create some content in-world with most people accessing other’s virtual creations through Second Life.
Given the situation today, one can argue that it is ridiculous to have one or a few companies as exclusive web hosting corporations. Some of these reasons include scalability, freedom of expression and developer freedom. We can also see all of these issues within Second Life, with reports of:
- Multiple avatars in a single sim causing performance problems
- Issues like the recent SL5B celebration rated as PG
- changes to server code breaking existing client additions (as in the University of Michigan’s stereoscopic patches).
If we want to encourage substantial synthetic world growth and continue to use the environments as spaces for creativity and experimentation – not just for corporate profit – then it is critical that we work on open standards and interoperability. Through the employment of software like OpenSim and RealXtend, we can attempt to become independent from the corporate restrictions of Linden Labs.
The recent debate over “prim limits” (ie limiting the number of prims allowed in a sim) reveals the importance of this issue. For Linden Labs, limiting individual user’s processor power is critical to their ability to make a profit and to continue to operate as the primary server of synthetic worlds. While they present themselves as our benevolent benefactors, this position also allows them to ultimately maintain control over what is and is not allowed in this environment. Why is there the strange familial naming of every Linden Labs employee? Is it to give users the feeling that they are part of one big happy family? Or that Linden Labs are our avatar’s loving parents? Would we stand for a world wide web that was hosted by just one corporation?
I propose that we would not seriously invest as much time in web use/web content creation if it was all owned by one corporation which had ultimate say over freedom of expression. What makes the web reliable and open and therefore important is decentralization.