Saturday, January 5, 2008

Human Fixtures

Meet BeatWyss Boa, BorisGroys Oh, PeterSloterdijk Voom and PeterWeibel Oh. They trade jabs with each other and with whoever else happens to join them on the ZKM sim, both on a boxing ring and off it. This is a typical chat for them:

Boxring: Next round.
BorisGroys Oh: Lem, Every exhibition tells a story is iconoclastic.
BeatWyss Boa: BorisGroys, The story is the work is the beginning.
PeterSloterdijk Voom: BorisGroys, The truth is, that this is a chair.
BorisGroys Oh: Lem, Finally the artist alone.
PeterSloterdijk Voom: BorisGroys, Instead of the artist and the economic order.
BeatWyss Boa: BorisGroys, The sense of the artist.
PeterWeibel Oh: PeterSloterdijk, The world is made without the artist.
BorisGroys Oh: Lem, These works of art.
PeterSloterdijk Voom: PeterWeibel, Without a theory of religion in the world.
Boxring: Next round.

From left to right, in the boxing ring in ZKM: PeterWeibel Oh, BorisGroys Oh, BeatWyss Boa. Missing from the picture: PeterSloterdijk Voom

Beat, Boris and the two Peters are avatars you can find in the ZKM sim most of the time (who doesn't crash in SL?). But they are not like your avatar or mine. They are chat bots that are controlled by programs on an off-grid server. And they may not look it individually, but together they are a conceptual art piece, one of several pieces that are part of the ZKM sim (in RL, ZKM is the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, an art institute and a museum in Germany).

They are also probably the most sophisticated example of a concept that I am surprised how rarely it is used in SL. Let's call them "human fixtures" until someone thinks of a better term. These human fixtures are an integral part of builds and in the case of the chat bots in ZKM they themselves are the build. And this being SL, human fixtures don't have to be really human, so they can be little green aliens or robots. Their essence though is that we are conditioned to react to their presence similarly to the way we react to the presence of other avatars (or to humans in RL). For instance, the sight of a servant's human shape in the large hall of a palace makes a big difference in our perception of the place as opposed to the same large hall being completely deserted. I have personally experienced that feeling on the Ascotia sim (or Ducado de Alba), unfortunately the sim is going through changes at this time and recently I have seen only one example of human fixtures in two guards standing at the entrance of the palace.

As I said, this concept is used too rarely in SL and we have become used to builds where no human form is within sight although we are psychologically conditioned to expect them there. I have seen several ferris wheels in SL and yet they all look abandoned. Just a handful of human fixtures strategically placed in the seats would change that and could also tell interesting stories. A young couple kissing. A mother and a child having fun. Two teenage girls screaming. One robot sitting alone and crocheting. In any case, a ride in a ferris wheel is much more appealing when you are not the only person riding as opposed to when all the other seats are empty.

Oh, the concept has been used and quite successfully too. Probably the best known example is Greenies Home Rezzable with the little green aliens spread throughout the house adding a powerful comic element. The concept of the oversized house that we can explore as if we're the size of a mouse was greatly original and beautifully done. But how empty would that house have looked and how much success would it have had without the greenies themselves?

Greenies Home Rezzable
Those Greenies know how to have fun

A more recent sim, Privateer Space, uses both robots and humans with great results. You will find a spaceship there that is damaged and that is abandoned by its crew, but then you will find what is likely that very same crew "assimilated" on a borg ship. There are also many humanoid robots, many of them creating comical situations, like a pandering robot or a robot washing clothes in a primitive fashion. Talking to the creator of the sim, Aley Arai, I have also found out that she is working on adding scripts to some of the robots to interact with the visitors of the sim.

Privateer Space
A human assimilated by the borg on the Privateer Space sim

Whether they are active like the chat bots on ZKM or the scripted robots on Privateer Space, or whether they are completely passive, these human fixtures can be an important element in the builds that they are a part of. By no means should this become a generic solution to fill in for the lack of visiting avatars, although I personally would rather see that than campers sweeping floors in malls. But I certainly hope that they will become more widespread as long as their use is made creatively and in good taste.

PS: Any other good examples of human fixtures used in SL? I am sure I must have missed some. Any good examples where human fixtures could be used and aren't? Even examples where human fixtures are a mistake.