Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How will you cope, living with your avatar?

13:04 4 April 2011

In Infinite Reality, Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson map the exciting possibilities and daunting downsides of ever more realistic virtual worlds

Hello, future. Gaming systems that drop you into another world, such as Microsoft's Kinect or Nintendo's Wii, are just the beginning of what virtual-reality technology has to offer. Get ready for virtual immortality, teleportation, time travel and the ability to be in two places at once.

But everything comes at a price. There are those who already worry about how this technology is affecting our brains. And once the digital versions of us become indistinguishable from our real selves, what might this do to our societies?

Two of virtual reality's most prominent researchers have come together to sketch out the landscape of an emerging field I call psychotech - the place where psychology and technology collide to produce something new and exciting. Social and cognitive psychologists Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson detail the current research - primarily their own - and pose some fascinating questions, which have surprising and important answers.

Do people treat digital representations of humans as if they were real? Do we have the same expectations of virtual others as of real people? If something occurs in a virtual environment, does that make the experience less authentic, or are our brains just as susceptible to virtual fear, love and trauma? And ultimately, now that we are able to create avatars in our own image and set them loose in virtual worlds to do our bidding, should we be held accountable for their independent actions?

This isn't just a whimsical exercise in philosophy. The practical applications of immersive virtual reality are already helping people across the globe - and future applications are limited only by the imagination, the authors say.

Imagine a classroom in which the learning conditions are individually tailored for each student. Via their own portal, everyone in the group feels as though the class is designed just for them, leading to less distraction and better grades.

Or what if you never had to endure another disappointing internet shopping experience? Remember that shirt that looked perfect on the model, but turned out to be all wrong when you received it in the post? Soon some internet shops will allow you to shop in 3D virtual environments in which you can pick virtual products off virtual shelves, gaining instant information on size, colour and proportions, as your realistically shaped avatar turns it over in its hands - or even tries it on.

Blascovich and Bailenson aren't naive optimists, though. They warn that as avatars become a larger part of our daily lives, we will also become more susceptible to identity theft, privacy violations and high-tech, individualised guerrilla marketing delivered by your virtual self.

Infinite Reality starts with a short discussion of the history of virtual reality, builds to a broad overview of the research literature and ends with a road map of the near future. Sadly, at some points the pace slows to an academic crawl: at times I found myself instinctively reaching for a highlighter to mark key phrases, as if they might show up in an exam question later. But it is well worth wading through these brief textbook passages. The second half of the book picks up speed, illustrating the ground-breaking research with vivid imagery and inspiring analysis.

We have long used science fiction to live out our wildest dreams. Now, with virtual reality, we can experience them for ourselves. And if Blascovich and Bailenson are right, it's as good as the real thing. And maybe infinitely better.

Source and/or read more: http://goo.gl/g1MAv

Publisher and/or Author and/or Managing Editor:__Andres Agostini ─ @Futuretronium at Twitter! Futuretronium Book at http://3.ly/rECc