Augmentology"...is a concise manual of reality for our digital age."

Mark Hancock,_Augmentology: Interfaccia Tra Due Mondi_

[Sponsored by The Ars Virtua Foundation/CADRE Laboratory for New Media]

This TED talk by Peter Molyneux:

…demos Milo, a hotly anticipated video game for Microsoft’s Kinect controller. Perceptive and impressionable like a real 11-year-old, the virtual boy watches, listens and learns — recognizing and responding to you.

The demonstration begins with an explanation of how Milo is constructed. A combination of the following three elements allow Milo to exist:

  1. A Kinect Camera
  2. Artificial Intelligence developed by Microsoft
  3. Emotional Artificial Intelligence built by Lionhead Studios.

Milo moves through a synthetic environment predicated on User-directed biofeedback/body gestures: no mechanical controllers are necessary. Unfortunately, Milo’s introductory learning curve [which is integral to the "game" leveling system] involves inherent gender bias: if you’re a girl, your initial game variable is a Butterfly whereas if your a boy, you’ll be presented with a Snail.

The demonstration goes on to illustrate how Milo’s face is comprehensively AI driven. His facial movements include blush response, nostril “flare” size [indicating stress], “body matching” [causing neuro-linguistically driven facial alterations] and responses to verbal cues. Peter then describes how Milo’s personality development is predicated on a Cause-and-Effect dynamic. This causality is showcased via 3 examples:

  1. The User can choose to direct Milo to squash a snail: if the User does it will effect “…how Milo develops”.  The specifics of the verbal stimulus employed including how the User vocalises [specific phrases and intonations] all contribute to a database that informs and effects future interactions.
  2. The User teaches Milo to skim stones over the surface of a river [skewed gender stereotyping is again evident here].
  3. The User choosing to clean Milo’s room: Milo’s recognition of the User’s beneficial intervention and verbal engagement promotes sustained developmental interaction based on [what Peter terms] “deep psychology”.

This “deep psychology” [or what is described in synthaptic terms as "augmentology"] encourages a User’s empathy loadings. This in turn allows such games to shift towards complex experientially-defined engagement. These games surpass the hollow reinforcement of contemporary Social Games such as Farmville: instead, the User “levels up” by knitting fictionalised engagement with personality/identity construction and personalised growth variables. The element of cloud-directed learning [coaching synthetic humans whose social and chronological development depends on "crowdsourced" input] creates enormous opportunities for instruction and feedback via these types of  “Reality Gaming” systems [highlighted here by Seth Priebatsch]:

In 2008, several articles here at Augmentology examined the concepts of Synthetic Presencing and Synthapticism. Both concepts are part of a theoretical framework that attempts to explain developing cultural > augmentological patterns. Presencing embodies a rethink of conventional entertainment modes:

Fiction and non-fiction classifications are designed to map to boundaries of known forms [think: cinema, literature, television and music]. They are so designed to provoke audience responses introspectively and externally. Current synthetic practices are refashioning this entertainment base via the perpetuation of types of unintentional and deliberately augmented recreation. These recreation types are reliant on immediacy of response, play, and Pranksterism. They employ Sandboxing, Gonzoism and spontaneous engagement. This type of entertainment is termed _Presencing_. Presencing involves loose clusters of pursuits that evolve in, or are associated with, synthetic environments. Examples include the Streisand Effect, Supercutting, Flashmobbing, the Slashdot EffectGeohashing, Image macro generation and Internet meme threading…Presencing showcases accidental or reflexive entertainment elements where the fictional/non-fictional divide is erased; associated validity qualifiers are also removed and reconceptualised. Amateur production is equated with valued expression. Presencing also offers adaptive potential for augmented attempts at mediating geophysical constraints.

The complementary concept of Synthapticism involves:

…Crowdsourcers [who] produce clusters of user-mediated data through surges of concentrated attention… Synthetics display attentional surges appropriate to synthaptic shiftings. Synthetic environments operate in accordance with this surge potentiality, with users adopting platforms that offer a contemporary catering for the relevant surge…Synthapticism produces unprecedented connections between synthetic participants. Adjunctive relationships are constructed via Identity interfacing and cushioned by support networks with a comparable emotional weighting to those found in traditional sociocentric structures [acquaintance>friendship>family>community]. Synthaptic communication may appear as fractured or trivial to those not connected synthaptically…”

One contemporary example of a Presencing/Synthaptic Campaign centres on a PR-created character called “The Old Spice Guy” or @OldSpice. This campaign, which makes extended use of social media > network dynamics, initialized with a Synthaptic threading system directly developed from conventional advertising:

Anything is possible when you smell like an Old Spice man and our hero, Isaiah Mustafa, is back to illustrate just a few of the amazing things that an Old Spice man can do. The latest effort is a fully integrated campaign with TV, print and digital executions, targeted at both men and women.

On July 13th 2010 [USA Portland time] the Old Spice brand extended this “personalised” social presence/character via synthetically dependent platforms including Youtube, Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook. “The Old Spice Guy” character urged cross-platform users to AMA [a popular internet thread on several boards which means "Ask Me Anything"]. The humorous > quirky responses included almost instantaneous @OldSpice micro-video answers to selected users, including meta-referencing by Isaiah Mustafa:

One response that encapsulates the Synthaptic aspects of this campaign began with the user @Jsbeals asking @OldSpice to make a marriage proposal on his behalf:

@Jsbeals later tweeted that his girlfriend had accepted the proposal:

@Jsbeals: @OldSpice SHE SAID YES!!!! #OldSpice @Jsbeals

….and who then changed his Twitter Biography to:

The Old Spice proposal was real. Thank you Old Spice for helping me with this.

A second response set resulted in the sending of roses [referenced in a micro-video response] to Alyssa Milano. A third instance that highlights the episodic > cross-platform > Synthetic Presencing aspect is summed up by Twitter user @rob_sheridan:

Presencing In Action: @OldSpice + Reddit Contributors

Each episodic response illustrates the flattening of traditional entertainment factors [think: @OldSpice responding to "everyday" users as well as more established Hollywood/Internet celebrities]. The campaign realigns passive entertainment construction and distanced absorption via real-time Immediation and Regenerative Comprehension. The Old Spice Guy Synthaptic threading is currently ongoing with replies continually being posted via Youtube.

“There are many worlds and many realities in our universe. When one reality, or one world-view is superimposed on another, it is inevitable that social, economic and cultural problems arise. Hierarchies of worlds are constructs of a bygone era. Ecologies of worlds should guide us in considering our future… We can begin by designing environments that can respond to physical, environmental, or social needs. Not only the needs of human beings, but also of the organisms and elements with whom we share the Biosphere.” – fo.am

Rezzing occurs in the space in-between worlds. Rezzing happens in the moment we switch from one reality to another: where the structure of synthetic worlds is unveiled. We see these spaces appear gradually – textures, alpha channels and audio appear in layers. Forms start as simple grey patterns that morph and evolve via emergent detail. These patterns resolve as final forms that adhere to in-game physics and flop into “place”.

Rezzing 1

When I begin rezzing – and am between avatars – my body disappears. Then, the simple basic shape beneath is exposed with pitch black skin and bizarre proportions. Finally, my body parts materialise.

I stand naked: staring ahead as my clothes begin to appear, one piece at a time. As the textures of my skin are downloaded, my blurry body is redrawn in photorealistic detail. In Second Life, Linden Labs has added a feature where rezzing avatars are surrounded by a cloud whilst forming. This cloud presumably covers the moments of nakedness while an avatar’s clothes are appearing and bare pixel genitalia are exposed.

There is no geophysical equivalent to the act of rezzing. The closest phenomenon is the act of awakening from – or falling into – dreams. When an object or avatar is rezzed in a synthetic environment, its data representation is downloaded from the database into the local client. On screen, a visual “something” is created from synthetic “nothing” – an ontological novelty out of the pure void. This act reveals a flaw in the materiality and persistence of these worlds or a type of virtual ontology similar to Deleuze’s Spinozan plenty without void.

After encountering the whooshing sound that indicates teleporting, I am dropped into an incomplete world. Often during this phase, my avatar manifests in a falling animation. First, all is sky and water which faithfully glistens with the sun (according to environment settings). Then, distant objects appear. In complex areas this can take minutes as particle scripts initialise and begin to swirl and glow before the details of architecture appear.

555 KUBIK | facade projection |

During the rezzing process, as a user’s body begins to form they step into a swirl of affect. This affect may induce feelings of identification with the avatar or a revulsion from it. This emotional polarisation may produce a sense of pleasure in seeing or a sense of disjunctive discomfort. The activity of the database creates its own unreproducable order dependant on the speed of the bytes transferred. Hair or pants/skirt may take minutes to download, with the avatar blinking into space with a bald head or exposed thong in the meantime. At this juncture, the avatar hover-stands in an unfolding environment and waits for the expected transactions of the “normal” synthetic world to begin.

How do we come to understand the resonances, affects and effects of rezzing into synthetic environments? With augmented reality making headline news, can we think of other ways of entering other realities which are not limited to visual modes? What about pain? Sound? Smell? Can Mixed Reality Performances be used to develop and explore these methods of realityshifting? If we can think of ways of finding spaces between realities, then can we think of the space between realities as similar to the space between genders and sexualities? Could entering a space between realities free us of certain rules, be a strategy of liberation and transformation? Part 2 will explore these questions.

Addiction [as defined psychologically] is diagnosed when displays of compulsive behaviours are observed in any given subject. These dependencies are widely perceived as detrimental. It is assumed that a deregulation of a person’s operational actions occurs when they are classified as dependent and manifesting traits that indicate an Addictive Personality Disorder. Addictive tendencies are viewed as maladaptive and indicate a subject’s inability to balance the majority of their everyday activities along a socioscientific axis. Is Addiction an inappropriate psychological construct to apply to the majority of Synthetics [individuals participating in synthetic environments] and their networked interactions?

Media channels have a tendency to label sustained engagement within synthetic environments in terms of this dependency paradigm. These reports also act to _monsterise_ Synthetics and their online participation via a condemnation of activity that results in parallel behavioural markers of Addiction. This type of _Gamer Danger_ response occurs when extreme cases of MMOE participation – and any negative consequences – are generalised as representational. These cases are often referred to as potential examples of prescriptive, as opposed to skewed, behaviour. This attempt to cast extreme synthetic interaction as the norm *encourages* the creation of fear-based assessments rather than alternative examinations.

A recent study conducted by Dr. John Charlton [University of Bolton, England] and Ian Danforth [Whitman College, Washington] allegedly concluded a correlation between MMORPG addiction and Asperger’s Syndrome. On further querying, it was found that the study *suggested* that MMO games may be addictive for gamers displaying high Aspergian traits. This fear-filtered media coverage may be driven by a need to confirm the importance of the biological-dictated, Darwin-centric “1st Life” as concretely preferential in an evolutionary sense. That is, that flesh-based/ego-mediated phenomenology is given preference over synthetic states in order to maintain acceptable definitions of _Reality_. These definitions are further ratified via media focus on this type of adverse addictive potentiality, rather than any positive characteristics enhanced by engagement within synthetic environs.