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.


Lem Skall said...

Torrid Luna, one of the creators of ZKM, has pointed out to me that Sine Wave has a product that is relevant for this topic: actorbots. Sine Wave has been using such bots on their own Sine Wave Island sim for some time now. It seems to me that their target market is more commercial than artistic, but I think that it opens also interesting possibilities in the artistic/creative domain. And that fits with the concept I am referring to in this blog entry.

Torrid also responded to my blog entry on her own blog. She gives an interesting quote from Philip Rosedale referring to ZKM: "The avatars are the artpiece". To which Torrid added, "that certain feeling, communicating with a real avatar, cannot be beaten". Very true, and that raises valid concerns for human fixtures being overused.

There are however so many missed opportunities where the addition of human fixtures would have a remarkable effect. Another such example is CJ Carnot's train station on the Fleur sim, even as impressive as it is. IMO, a few diners in the dining car and maybe a waiter too would change the build for the better.

Gwyneth Llewelyn said...

I like the term "Human Fixtures", even if it sounds weird — "humans" as elements of a virtual presence :)

But this is Second Life, and, well, avatars are part of the landscape. The interesting bit is that our team at Beta Technologies has — perhaps not deeply thinking about it — scattered a few bots around some of the virtual presences they've designed. On the old orientation area for Sunbelt Software, bots — mermaids in their case — provided the feedback and interaction to help people out to complete each stage of the orientation area (even LL did the same to a degree). On Saxo Bank, a Danish bank with a virtual presence in SL, the Saxo Trading Game has bots running around the trading floor, and confirmation of the sales is made by touching on the head of a "Chief Trader", also a bot. From a software development point of view, it could just have been a button, a HUD, a dialogue box. But the creative director thought that placing a bot there would make things more "human". A similar approach was used on a print shop simulator (sadly, one of the dozens of "internal projects" for a major corporation that will never be made public), where robots zoom across the print shop floor carrying cartloads of paper, ink, and supplies. And on some learning games (also on private areas, not open to the public), avatars interacted with all sort of cute robots to learn more. Again, these could have been simple ATM-type displays or similar "techie"-looking things, but the choice was to make them "humanised".

There is a certain element of personal taste here, but some designers like to place "the human touch" on their environments. There are a few reasons for that. Psychologically, our brains are wired to understand that if you see a "person" (or something closely looking like a person, like a robot or a animal walking on two feet) somewhere, it is "interactive". We expect that "androids" talk and interact with us. By contrast, a "panel" on a wall may or may not be interactive — if may only be informative — since that's what we're conditioned to think about (ie. on a train station, boards and panels provide information about trains, that you can read... but if you want to buy a ticket, you're more likely to go over the counter and talk to a person instead). ATMs sort of blur the distinction, since we're also conditioned to think of ATMs as "interactive devices".

I like the whole concept, though, and will certainly forward this article to our creative director :) After all, it seems that she was right when placing all those cute bots floating around... even if the techies complained about them :)

Aleister Kronos said...

Sine Wave I found a very strange experience. There were about 35 avatars dancing away in singles across the sim. No-one was talking. I had no idea whether they were real people or actorbots!

In fact, I think most were real people - but I am still not sure. I found it all rather weird!

Lem Skall said...

@Al: Oh yeah, using avatars the way Sine Wave is using them is almost a whole different topic. It is a valid use when it is done to model animations as in Sine Wave but it is downright unethical when used to fake traffic. Even when valid, I think that there should be something clearly distinctive marking the actorbots to differentiate them from "real" avatars. Otherwise it makes people feel the way you did.

Lem Skall said...

Yet another related development, the Daden chatbots. They are also targetting a commercial market (receptionist/guide is the example mentioned most). Their focus seems to be on using AI for verbal interaction with users.

Thanks go to Sophrosyne's Salon for helping me find out about these chatbots.