Category Archives: Offline impact

Virtual reality to simulate witness POV

Two quick things before I dash off to my yoga class:

– I’m trying to read more long works this year. Essays on the Internet are terrific, but books provide more depth and I enjoy literary fiction, non-fiction, and a book here and there from other genres. In the interest of accountability, I created a page on this blog, 2015 Reading, where I’m jotting a couple notes about each book as I finish. Comments are enabled there if you’d like to make a recommendation or argue that Faulkner adored and respected women.

– I was going to post this last night before it began to spread widely, but I got distracted helping someone with a WordPress problem.  Hmmph.  So, perhaps you’ve already seen it. Since one of the recent filmed beatings of a handcuffed suspect took place in my area, I thought this video that uses virtual reality to simulate a witness point-of-view on a law enforcement beating was particularly fitting.

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Posted by on January 15, 2015 in In the News, Offline impact, Side Topics, Video


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What would your life be like without digital technology?

A couple nights ago, The Colbert Report interview segment featured yet another self-important philosopher-type. When asked to critique modern culture in ten words or less, he replied, “Too much digital. Not enough critical thinking. More physical reality.”

Now, I agree with him about critical thinking, though it seems to contradict the rest of his statement. My opinion is that people who are active in both the physical and digital worlds can consciously choose to experience the best of both, based on their preferences.  There are outliers on both sides and their choices are valid too, whether they choose full immersion in the physical or digital realm (as much as that is possible), but their choices are in no way superior.

What experiences shape the opinions of digital naysayers? Did their teenagers text through an important family moment? Was AOL just a little too complicated? Do they see ads for laptops and tablets and think that they’re babble in a language they don’t understand?  Was a moment of forest reverie interrupted by a hiker’s Maroon 5 ringtone?

If I imagine my life without the digital components, it is not a richer existence.  My husband and I got to know each other online for years before we met in person, so I wouldn’t have my comfy home life. I wouldn’t have any of the relationships I’ve built in virtual worlds and games, whether fleeting or enduring.  The most lucrative positions in my job history and my financial stability now are based in digital technology. Before that, I was managing office buildings, which can be a difficult, miserable job.

Without digital technology, my experience of the world would be limited to what others tell me. I could read my local newspaper and the selection of books at the library and local bookstores, chosen by others. I could watch local television news and the national news. How limiting that would be! Now I have the work of thinkers around the globe, ancient and modern, at my fingertips. I can see the news through a plethora of filters. Plus, the income from those tech jobs allowed me to travel widely and to go back to college to study anthropology.

Speaking of anthropology, digital technology helps me understand and relate to other people. I’m not inherently good at that and if I had to meet everyone face-to-face, I’d become a hermit. I’m not innately compassionate either, yet Facebook and email allow me to express concern and support without my reserve being misunderstood. Because I can have a lot of interactions online, I have social energy when I need it. That allows me to take yoga classes and make small talk with strangers when I walk my dog through the neighborhood. Those can be excruciating or impossible when I am socially exhausted. Technology is thereby a contributor to my physical well-being, too.

My experiences with the physical world are entwined with the digital.  Once I finish writing this post, I will clean and process a fantastic seven pound mushroom harvested from my yard: I know it is edible thanks to online mushroom guides, I watched a YouTube video of how to clean it, and I found a recipe for wild mushroom soup on a blog. Those digital elements don’t detract from gathering and eating the most local of food; they enable it.  We’ve gone camping in tents, kayaking, and on long bike rides this summer, and all of those deeply physical experiences were connected in some way to the digital — making campground reservations online, finding where we took a wrong turn off the bike paths using Google Maps, checking the weather radar to see if those dark clouds heading toward us were full of rain and we should paddle our arms off to race to the beach.

Sure, some of us act like selfish narcissists and those traits can be more obvious when technology is involved. Some of us get dazzled or obsessed with something for a while, and aspects of digital tech appeal to our compulsive inclinations. But for many, digital technology is an integrated and balanced part of our lives. I might be an extreme example but I’m certainly not unique.

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Posted by on October 9, 2014 in Culture, Offline impact


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Losing real weight via avatar

Let’s face it: one of the appealing aspects of virtual life is that the body of your dreams is just a few clicks or sliders away, whether the mega-muscled hunks of war games or the lithe yet curvy giantesses of SL. Do those jeans make your ass look too big? No problem: adjust your butt size and save a copy of the shape just for wearing with that outfit. Need a little more cleavage to fill out that blouse? Poof!  Done.

I don’t know that enough research has been done on avatar and RL body image and it’s a topic where I would be skeptical of non-gamers or virtual world residents asking the wrong questions. When I was working on a paper about embodiment in virtual spaces last year, I read the existing work on avatar choice and found it unsatisfactory and lacking in depth. In SL there are practical reasons that a limited range of body types are expressed. Most creators design clothing, furniture, and animations to fit the most common sizes, but to expand that range wouldn’t be financially viable. It takes extra dedication to have an atypical avatar, and this fact is underestimated by outsiders who see lots of pretty avatars and write them off as dream fulfillment.

A recent small study on the use of weight loss support activities in Second Life from the University of Kansas Medical Center has been making the news, often with a headline that references the myth that all “gamers” are junk food stuffed sloths who create an idealized self online while devolving in the actual world.

The South Park boys play WoW

The South Park boys play WoW

Actually, the study exploited something that has been known for a while, that people can benefit from practicing anxiety-causing activities in safe virtual environments. It’s one of the reasons that virtual reality treatment for veterans with PTSD has seen increased use. MIT anthropologist Sherry Turkle talks about some examples in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, including a woman with an artificial limb who practices removing it for sex online to increase her comfort with that eventuality in RL and a man who explores his creative side in hopes of being able to better express it offline (Turkle 2011: 212-219). I think her explanations are too functionalist but the virtual practicing is certainly part of the story.

In the KUMC study, dieters who attended support meetings in Second Life lost more weight than those who attended them in real world. Both groups used the virtual environment during the maintenance stage. KUMD plans to build a more comprehensive island for in SL for a second, larger study:

The new island will expand opportunities for the participants. On KUMC Healthy U, avatars will be able to take advantage of restaurants with cashiers that total the amount of calories on customers’ trays as they check out. A kiosk, known as Fast Food Frenzy, will link avatars to the websites of various restaurants, so that they can calculate the calories in their meals.

The new island also includes a more elaborate gymnasium, complete with a swimming pool where avatars can register the calories burned as they swim, tread water or take part in activities in the water. Trainers in the gym will be able to help the research subjects by answering basic fitness questions. Avatars can also access fitness videos while doing their simulated running on treadmills.

I wish them luck and believe there’s a lot of value in habit-building online that translates offline. However, they’ll have to be wary of the unpleasant truth that time spent immersed in one world is time that is no longer available in the other, and I’d wonder if the cumulative time required for both workouts could be a burden.  It will be interesting to see.

Another story related to avatars and weight loss is this one from CNN: Avatar inspires gamer to hit the gym. A young man was inspired by his muscular badass EVE Online persona and took the attitude into the real world as motivation to transform himself. I’m not a fan of his characterization of himself and other gamers as “a group of pathetic losers”, but perhaps his self-created brand will inspire others who could use the push.

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Posted by on May 20, 2013 in Offline impact, Research


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