Tag Archives: embodiment

VWBPE’s Steampunk Social

Last night I attended a networking and fundraising event for the upcoming Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference. The theme was steampunk and the music tended toward the blues.

VWBPE Steampunk Social

A friend asked why I volunteer with VWBPE (or attend, when I can’t help out). I’m not an educator; sessions on techniques for increasing classroom engagement with virtual elements or public health simulations don’t apply to me at all. What’s in it for me?

VWBPE is a group that sees potential in the virtual. The people I’ve met there aren’t always the most tech savvy, adept with Blender, or conscious of varied SL communities, but they are passionate subject matter experts who want to innovate and improve. They’re a diverse bunch. Going to the conferences, I see people observing something and saying, “I think I can make that better. Let me roll up my sleeves and give it a try. Look at the cool ways we can approach the problem!” Those are the kind of people whose company I appreciate.

Last night I danced, I donated, and I chatted. Afterward, I took a break in the library below the event. I’d had fun customizing my avatar with a mix of things from my inventory and new purchases. I even added a new prosthetic leg to my collection — a copper model instead of the high tech version I often wear. Azoury makes such beautiful things.

Resting in the library
That’s part of what I love about SL. In the physical world, my titanium parts are under skin and I can often hide my pain. In SL, I can work an expression of the way I feel into my outward appearance, with lovely aesthetics (and wearing heels I’ve never been able to manage). Sometimes it feels confrontational in a way that would be uncomfortable to me in RL, and I enjoy experiencing that change of mood.

Leave a comment

Posted by on February 22, 2019 in Culture, Embodied Experience, virtual worlds


Tags: , , , , ,

Wednesday film: The Last One

The main character of this short is the final survivor of his kind in the war between humans and robots. The film is nicely shot and touching, but I’m including it mainly because of the last line of voiceover. How soon could that be true for both sides in the battle? Will it ever be?

The Last One from Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg on Vimeo.

Leave a comment

Posted by on June 3, 2015 in Video


Tags: , , ,

VWBPE conference, day 3 (part 2)

The afternoon session “Educators and the Second Life Viewer”, led by Oz Linden, wasn’t a topic that had direct impact on me, but I was curious.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one:


Oz began with an overview of how the Lab does viewer development and release and then the questions came flooding in. Most of the concerns involved dealing with viewer updates in an institutional setting, where students sitting down to use machines lacked administrator rights and had to wait for someone else to install the software. At a busy school, the update schedule of the tech support staff can be terribly out of sync with SL releases.

Some worried about potentially losing inventory when testing new viewer candidates (you won’t; it’s stored on the server, not your client viewer). Others asked about screencasting or screen sharing tools. The discussion indicated that other tools do it better, which perhaps didn’t satisfy everyone’s needs. People asked about hair alphas and alpha conflicts in general, which Oz said were always on the LL bug list. A question came up about how to transfer settings from one computer to another (move the settings.xml file). There was a discussion around how to create a shared whiteboard in SL. HTML 5 support will be coming in a few months, which might make it easier to use media-on-a-prim to create a whiteboard, and one educator suggested using Twiddla for that implementation. In the discussion of media-on-a-prim, Oz mentioned Quicktime for Windows and Flash as being difficult to support in-world (personal opinion: they’re outdated and shouldn’t be supported, but we need a media option).  Someone asked about getting an MSI instead of an exe to make installation in labs easier.  I’m sure Oz was flooded with emails mentioning that an MSI can be generated directly from Visual Studio by choosing “Create an Installer Package” from the Project.


People also asked about social media sharing, rendervolumeLODFactor settings, inventory management (!), an export feature (nope), and more. Oz also mentioned render costs and the setting being tested that won’t render avatars above a certain weight.  Not that I have a horse in that race. It was a very informative talk, with a couple of other Lindens jumping in to add details, and I hope it was useful for them as well. The session took place during dinner time, so my software engineer husband was listening with me and often yelling responses to questions across the room; I’m glad my microphone fiasco happened later in the evening.

Speaking of which…

Next, I attended the “Content Curation Through Virtual World Communities” session, where I was able to hear the first two panelists and a small amount of the third. My write-up of this session is limited as I committed an accidental faux pas (open mic in a voice-conducted panel) and lost my notes in the flurry of embarrassment afterward.


Valerie Hill (Valibrarian Gregg) touched on library topics — as you might guess from her SL name — but also referenced Alvin Toffler and talked about users as prosumers: both consuming and creating content. She spoke about how important it is to vet our own content sources for credibility and to avoid placing ourselves in an echo chamber where we only hear our existing views reflected back at us.


Renee Brock-Richmond (Zinnia Zauber) gave a presentation centered on creating an “authentic” avatar and reinforcing your personal branding. You might be able to tell from the slide above that she is all about color. She talked about different ways to use color in-world — not only for clothing — and about creating a consistent avatar, including profile, that is authentic to yourself. I found that very thought-provoking. I wanted to agree and argue, so it’s something I might pick up in a future post.


Next up was Beth O’Connell (Beth Ghostraven). She talked about useful communication techniques and tools. She also shared a helpful notecard entitled “Professional Education and Library Resources in Virtual Worlds” that has links to SL and OpenSim areas, mailing lists and groups, and websites. Unfortunately, my gaffe happened during her session. I missed part of it while talking and after being removed from the sim.

I completely missed the presentation by Joyce Bettancourt (Rhiannon Chatnoir), which was disappointing because I had enjoyed the session by her Vesuvius Group colleague so much earlier in the day.

Not being one who can shake off things like that (despite the wise counsel of Dr. Taylor Swift), I didn’t attend the session “Real Democracy in a Virtual World” or the Quill & Quarrel performance later that evening. Today, I’ll be attending sessions from my desktop computer, which has no microphone whatsoever.

Leave a comment

Posted by on March 21, 2015 in Learning, Research


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Avatar embodiment as self-directed therapy

Ignorance is a choice

You might have noticed that the Second Life avatar I’m using for photos has changed. With my SL partner Jakob offline and in the hospital, it’s uncomfortable to use the avatars that feel like “me” — my 9 year old alt and my 4 year old main Kay avatar. They feel too vulnerable. It’s unbearably sad to spend time in the virtual house that we share. I’ve managed to attend the weekly chat salon at Basilique, where my mind is engaged and distracted, but that’s about the limit of what I can do.

Now, I use an alt that I created a couple years ago but never really took out of the box, so to speak. She might as well wear a placard that says, à la Fight Club, “I am Kay’s inner rage.”  Right now she’s a cyborg with an artificial leg and eye, other times she’s punk. She always has a vicious scar across one cheek. She has an arsenal of weaponry and tools of mischief. It gave me great delight last week when she was changing clothes in a room at a public sandbox, two people crowded her, and I deployed a fog machine and released wandering elephants and tigers until they moved. She doesn’t talk to anyone more than replying to an initial greeting, sometimes. She embodies my feeling of helplessness and sadness as well as the part of me that wants to blow shit up.  The part of me that surges, narrow-eyed and fangs glistening, whenever I listen to “Want” by Recoil.

Walking around in this avatar helps me handle the frustration that I have no other place to release. It’s not fun and I don’t sign on daily, but it gives me a safe space to be angry and aggressively anti-social and unpleasant. I can’t carry those feelings with me every hour of the day and I need to work through them. This suits my personality more than seeking a support group and it spares my husband hours of my sulking or mourning.

Yesterday, Jakob had radiation therapy for the metastasized tumor in his brain. I have no idea what the doctors are telling him about what’s next, but let’s hope that the side effects don’t diminish his quality of life too badly. My planned trip to visit him, already booked, is in sixteen weeks.


Tags: , , ,

A walk in the woods in any weather


If you’ve read more than a few posts of mine, you know that I scoff at the nouveau Luddites telling people to put down their phones, limit screen time, or join the “real world”. Here is another reason why.

Lately I’ve needed some time with my thoughts, but the weather in my part of the physical world has ranged from a balmy crummy down to an absolute crappy. Any time I want it, however, I can stroll along a beach. I can climb a mountain or swim in a shimmering lake. I can watch the clouds from a tree fort and listen to bird song. If I want to be alone with a reasonable simulation of nature, I can do it at my keyboard.

I’m not saying that the virtual can replace the physical; it is only because I have similar experiences in my sense memory that the virtual strolling can soothe me so well. It is a supplement and an extension. It reminds me of places I’ve been. It takes me places I will never go.

Because some designers, builders, and artists in SL are so clever, walking through the woods can give me some of the same spirit-lifting surprises and delights I find offline. I’ll turn a corner and find squirrels scampering through the leaves. A cliff will offer me a soft cushion on which to meditate. Though I usually travel alone and in silence, sometimes another resident will add a quirky experience. A few minutes after resting on the hammock in the photo above, I was playing on a tire swing in the forest and a wolf came up to chat.


Posted by on November 24, 2014 in Art in SL, Health - Mental & Physical


Tags: , ,

Short documentary on virtual reality treatment of PTSD

Motherboard published this 20 minute documentary in March, but I just stumbled across it today (thanks GoodShit – NSFW). I’ve met a lot of people with PTSD or mental illness who use virtual worlds as part of their coping strategies, as well as some in formal virtual reality treatment programs. It’s incredibly powerful to be in a safe physical location and to explore the roots of ongoing anxiety. For some, a virtual world or game — outside of treatment — is also a way to interact with other people without feeling panic or self-consciousness from a temporary or lifelong condition.

The video focuses on customized VR environments for combat veterans – possible trigger warning.


Tags: , ,

Thoughts on virtual gender, appearance, and performance

Over at Motherboard is a short piece about a virtual gender stereotype experiment conducted at Stanford University. Basic concept: users competed against bots to complete math problems. Regardless of physical world gender, when users were assigned male avatars to compete against female bots, they were most successful.  The avatar representations were simply cartoon faces (dark eyes and hair, pale faces). Here’s the paper. I like that they were diligent about standardizing the perceived attractiveness of the avatars and tested whether existing mathematical ability was a factor, based on SAT math scores of participants. Still, could there be something else at work beyond the expected stereotype that males are better at math than females? I’d love to think so, but I’m not sure.


Katteker in TERA at level 27

Shifting gears, after I got bored with the lack of endgame for a solo player in TERA (or any MMORPG, really), I thought I’d try a small experiment of my own. How would the experience be different if I played the same class but with a radically different appearance?  My level 60 lancer — tank class — Karbyne is rhino-like and scarred, with a name that references the hardest element now known.  My second lancer, now level 28, is about as twee as I could manage.  She’s short with purple pigtails, stars on her cheeks, and squirrel ears and tail. I dubbed her Katteker, which means squirrel in Low German.  I set new rules for myself, too: if someone specifically invited me to join a guild, I would say yes.  If someone addressed me directly in conversation, I would answer. However, I wouldn’t seek to socialize any more than I did with my previous character.  The first result I found was that Katteker was recruited into a guild at level 17, compared with Karbyne, who reached the level cap guild-less. Secondly, random strangers give Katteker buffs almost every day (for non-gamers, that means they cast spells that give her short-term advantages, like greater endurance or faster healing). The strangers don’t stop to talk, though I usually say a quick “thank you!” in local chat. That never happened to Karbyne.

The most dramatic differences are within me, though. It’s more fun to play as Katteker. Her movements are light-hearted and upbeat rather than the angry, aggressive animations that are standard for Karbyne’s race, and my emotional state is influenced by that. For example, when both characters stand still, Katteker will eventually start to dance, then later to clap her hands on an invisible bug. Karbyne sneers and lunges menacingly. I’m excessively amused by playing an adorable purple squirrel-girl who is a ruthless tank. It might be that the gaming part of my personality is inclined toward cuteness and fun, Ratchet & Clank rather than Call of Duty, so I’m more comfortable playing as Katteker.

So, here’s what I’m pondering today: if I was designing a story-based video game, I might want to manipulate the emotional states and preconceptions of players by forcing them to play with different avatars during specific chapters of the game. Personally, I would want to challenge stereotypes as I did that: featuring female avatars in some logic-based segments and male avatars in emotional ones, and including avatars of assorted races and belief systems as primary characters, not just sidekicks and enemies. But what if I was developing a business or educational application that used avatars? I always prefer a system that allows users to choose and modify their own avatars, but would performance be better if the system forced avatar choice consistent with stereotypes about a particular task? I find it offensive to think about limiting mathematical tasks to male avatars and nurturing tasks to female avatars, for example, but if my goal was peak performance….  Hmm.  I think a compromise might be to allow users to pull from a varied set of default avatars for each task or to customize their own. If I felt my best “accounting self” was different than my “presentation self”, I could change avatars or make modifications to my base avatar, rather than having the system choose for me.

1 Comment

Posted by on August 23, 2014 in Embodied Experience, Gaming, Gender & Sexuality


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Prosthetic history

io9 published a photographic history of prostheses yesterday, going back to an iron arm from the 1500s. Some of them are quite beautiful, like this Victorian hand:


Mechanical and electronic enhancement of the human body fascinates me.  I’m interested in how the prosthetic part is (or is not) incorporated into a person’s proprioception and sense of self. I’m curious about the possibilities for enhancement beyond human standard abilities.

I have a hidden prosthetic: an artificial hip joint. It’s purely mechanical and attached to my bones. I walk a little strangely and my hip is often sore, but that was true before the surgery too. The process of incorporating the prosthetic into my selfhood was barely different from accepting a dental filling as part of my tooth; it’s invisible to me and except for when I notice some stiffness or that eight inch scar, I forget about it.  That’s dramatically unlike someone with an external prosthesis.

Like the experience of presence in a virtual world, incorporating a prosthetic is the extension of the self into the inanimate, mechanical or digital. However, I think there’s a risk in getting too philosophical about it, as that’s not a uniquely human characteristic. We successfully equip a wide variety of animals with prosthetic limbs. Perhaps we’re simply designed to make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves.


Tags: , ,

Using avatars to decrease racism?

There was a detailed post on io9 yesterday about a study in which researchers tested implicit racial biases of a group of light-skinned Spanish women and then split them into four test groups in virtual reality: some used a white avatar, some used a black avatar, some used a purple alien avatar, and some saw dark-skinned avatars but didn’t embody them.They were given time to explore with their virtual bodies and female avatars with light and dark skin (equal numbers) passed through their personal space to prompt an emotional reaction. The women were then given another test of implicit bias.

Unsurprisingly (I think), implicit bias was reduced only on those who used the dark-skinned avatar. They found the result was most pronounced in those who had experienced greater nervousness at the person space intrusions, perhaps because they felt the embodiment more than others and it enhanced the realism, having a greater effect. They haven’t yet tested if the result endures beyond that test session. (My guess? Nope.)  This seems like just a technical approach to the rubber hand psychology experiment, which hasn’t been tested for enduring effect, either.

It’s worth reading the io9 piece as it refers to related studies, but I don’t think this research is breaking any new ground. We’re more strongly affected by embodied experiences and empathy can be temporarily generated by imagining oneself in the shoes/skin of the other. Considering some of the avatars in my SL inventory, I’m not sure if I’m now more accepting of tall skinny white women, cartoon zombies, bouncing balls of energy, pixie-sized people, or two-dimensional flowers.  Maybe.


Leave a comment

Posted by on June 7, 2013 in Embodied Experience, Research


Tags: , , ,

What is the “lived experience” of virtual life?

Consider two descriptions of the same event.

It’s just before seven on a Tuesday morning and people are entering the great room at the Zen Buddhist retreat.  They greet each other and make small talk as they settle onto cushions arranged among the sunbeams on the wide plank floor. The meditation leader shares a thought-provoking quote and then lightly taps a bell to begin the daily session of silent meditation. Latecomers take cushions at the back of the room and before long, the only sounds to be heard are the birds outside and the hushed exhalations of slow communal breathing.  People shift slightly on their cushions and candles flicker. At the end of thirty minutes, the meditation leader again rings the bell and shares a thought. The participants slowly rise, thanking her and wishing each other a peaceful day before going off in different directions. One young man bows to the monk in the corner with a soft namaste and slips a donation into the box nearby.


In places around the planet, people of varied age, ethnicity, nationality and belief notice that it’s almost 7:00 am US Pacific time and go to their computers.They load a viewer program and log in to the Second Life service, watching as their avatars and surroundings rez (appear), and then open the Landmarks folder in their online inventories and double-click on “Kannonji”. The screen goes black and then another scene slowly rezzes: a large log cabin surrounded by trees and flowers. There are already some avatars inside the cabin, including a man dressed as a jester and a woman in an evening gown and very high heels. An oversized cat avatar wearing Buddhist robes sits in a corner. Each person uses the arrow keys and mouse on his own keyboard to move his avatar inside, right-click on an empty cushion, and command the avatar to sit. Text floods the screen as the meditation leader’s avatar pastes a quote into local chat and then activates a bell sound file. For the next thirty minutes, while the avatars occasionally fidget because of the animation scripts in the cushions and the area background sounds of birdsong and slow breathing play, the people controlling those avatars could be doing anything at all. Then, the meditation leader repeats the bell sound and the participants click “Stand” to pull their avatars off the cushions, quickly activating animation override programs to stop awkward and jerky motions. One of the participants triggers a gesture that makes his avatar bow to the cat monk and type “@–>–  Namaste” in the local chat window, and then he right-clicks on a donation box, chooses ” Pay” from the pie menu, and transfers fifty Linden dollars (about twenty US cents) from his account to the account of the person who rents the simulator and disk space on which the Kannonji Zen Retreat is hosted. Some avatars vanish, others are moved outside the building before being teleported away.

Inside the Kannonji zendo

Inside the Kannonji zendo

For an anthropologist, could either of those be considered the lived experience of the people involved?  Does it lie somewhere between?  Can it be generalized or is it distinctly individual because not only is each person a separate entity, but in this case, at least two entities? Can we accurately describe someone as meditating in a virtual world when the avatar is in a meditation pose but the actions of the physical person are unknown?

I think this is a complex, intriguing problem and another where a researcher is well-served by lengthy in-world fieldwork rather than surveys or briefly peering in from outside. Even the self-descriptions of those involved in the meditation will have a lot of variance. While one could record either the scenario in-world or that on the other side of the keyboard, I think the richness of the experience comes from a combination of the two. As we move toward better interaction technology which makes avatar control less artificial (motion and facial expression sensors, wider use of voice or voice recognition, etc), I expect the gap between what is experienced simultaneously in RL and a virtual world will narrow. Qualitative data from this period might show the flexibility of the human imagination, which — at least for some — can construct a highly compelling, immersive reality despite the technical hurdles that must be leaped to do it.

[Sections of this post first appeared in my capstone paper on virtual embodiment for an anthropology theory course.]

Leave a comment

Posted by on May 22, 2013 in Embodied Experience


Tags: , , ,

%d bloggers like this: