Avatar Technology


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  • Modern society is preeminently governed by technology: information technology that emphasizes automation and computerized information services. As such, management of knowledge is crucial in this age of information explosion. Gone are the days when information professionals such as the early librarians had to hoard away humanity’s intellectual treasures. Visions of Callimachus at the Library of Alexandria come to mind. Nowadays, the opposite is true. Currently, there is so much information pervading society that we must find new mechanisms for managing its new manifestations and its overall flow through the web of information channels. That is no truer than in today’s large companies, multinational corporations, and world governments across the planet. Certainly, the use of some form of knowledge management that incorporates the integration of both tacit and explicit forms of knowledge is needed to be put in place, but is there anything more that the business world can do in its quest for higher profits and its desire to somehow control the amount of information that it is faced with? What about integrating avatar technology?
  • There is little agreement on a simple definition for avatars, so the next few slides display the more popular ones.
  • Technology issues must also be addressed if avatars are to become commonplace. Since virtual worlds do not exist on the Internet as most people know it, software must be put on desktops that will allow access. Because the underlying technology is commonplace -- TCP/IP packets, UDP, FTP, sometimes HTTP -- often times it is as simple as downloading a plug-in into a browser, but it can be more complicated.
  • Avatars provide a number of benefits over other media for personal representation, such as personal web pages; more channels of communication; and avatars can express emotion through facial expressions and body posture, and can point at artifacts being discussed. Avatars lend themselves to collaborative user interfaces in which a user engages in a dialog with the system in order to accomplish a task; as well as act as personal representatives to maintain a sense of presence and cohesiveness within workgroups when members are absent; and Office Avatars can play a role in corporate strategic knowledge capture, by enticing authors to encode their knowledge for the benefit of their co-workers. Office Avatars would be particularly effective in those domains in which co-worker information is very time critical (as in engineering development teams) or in which a sense of human presence is important (as in sales).
  • One company is preparing themselves for the next century by investing in an Intranet that will connect their global offices and allow all of their employees around the world to instantly connect to company data and archives. Schlumberger chose Planet 9 Studios to create a 3D model to visualize their vast Intranet cyberspace. Each platform in the "Knowledge Hub" is connected to a specific area of archived information. From company financials and budgets to drilling records and geological reports, data can be easily retrieved from the the virtual world with the click of a mouse. In order to provide a friendly user interface, Planet 9 Studios created an information angel, Knowah, who follows users in the space. In the future, this avatar will be endowed with agent technology in order to fetch records and perform searches. The clickable Java based interface is easy and intuitive for all users.
  • Bruce Damer’s company is called DigitalSpace Corporation. One upcoming use of this technology will be customer relationship management. It is costly to maintain support for global clients and yet the people have a lot of questions. This way, they can come into this world -- which is a virtual representation of the headquarters -- and it will be staffed 24 hours per day and they can ask about travel health insurance and family planning, and all these kinds of complex things.
  • Steve Etteridge, the owner of Washington DC-based Careers and Co., came to Planet 9 with a grand vision. He wanted to shift the way workers and employers found each other. Steve decided to build fourteen, high-tech employment "cafes" where people could come to work on job skills. Walking into a cafe, they are greeted by the "Genius" avatar displayed on a huge flat screen monitor. After waking Genius, the visitor is taken on an introductory tour of the cafe and its functions. Please visit Careers and Co. in the Washington area and meet Genius.
  • Softbank wanted to be the first money making landlord in cyberspace. They envisioned a world where people would go to get information on networking products. A central square was built ringed by highrises for large corporations and a mall for smaller vendors. The first two "tenants" were Novell and Intel. Planet 9 also built interiors for both companies which functioned as online marketing offices.
  • Companies like Boeing complain that they have and use videoconferencing and NetMeeting, but find that it is missing things. They cannot have stuff inside the meeting, and find those involved are only beaming views from one desk to the other. People at a conference need to have stuff. One of Dean Witter’s divisions studied using avatars to represent employees on an Intranet communication system. They had found that their existing systems could not support video conferencing traffic. However, they found that VRML avatars could work with their existing systems quite nicely. How can an organization exploit the knowledge base of its knowledge stocks? There is an interdependence between stock and flow of knowledge. Inputs and outputs must be equitable for an organization to sustain a knowledge base. Stock and flow must be in sync. If not, the flow is negatively affected. How long does it take for someone's idea to flow through an organization? Are there bottlenecks? Bottlenecks could be hardware, could be a person stopping the flow, someone who has a agenda. From individual, through socialization to group members, eventually knowledge can be imbedded into an organization. Socialization is very important in the flow of knowledge because individual knowledge stocks affect performance; group knowledge stocks affect performance; and organizational knowledge stocks affect performance. If avatar technology can bring useful information into the office by allowing someone to hide their identity from someone with an agenda, then everyone wins.
  • Year 2000: Your customer calls and needs to speak with you. One of your network-based avatars, your intelligent virtual representative, has authenticated the caller by voice print and, using next generation voice recognition and synthesis, has engaged the customer with natural language as to his request. Accessing corporate files and recognizing that the volume of business with this customer is under the threshold that you have specified for immediate connection, your avatar queries the caller as to the relative importance of the call and any specific time requirements. Based on previous interactions with this customer and with you, your avatar decides that you need to be advised that this customer requires a call back within an hour. Your GPS (global positioning satellite) button informs your avatar that you are in a meeting room. Recognizing that the members of the corporate board are also in that room, your avatar, based on past experience, sends you a text page using a three-pulsed vibration signal. Finally, your avatar informs the caller that you will return his call within an hour.
  • Forrester Research has said the most promising applications include product presentation, the display of complex financial information, content navigation across complicated Websites, and customer service demonstration applications. Other possibilities include training and conferencing applications.
  • Stage One: The design process is brilliant. The facilitator is open to anything and everything to make the strategy sessions work. Prior to the first meeting he extracts some business plans, and interviewed the key actors, and the current stakeholders. Stage Two: Behind closed doors the stakeholders act out the whole Knowledge-Exchange within a Guilds concept by using a game he has devised, wherein all involved have an avatar they don and a role to play. For instance, one scenario has something to do with the timber industry. Stakeholders reinvent themselves into loggers, carpenters, builders, architects, a United Nations Pern, etc. Stage Three: Another set of games is designed to produce a series of different scenarios. What do we want such and such to be? We came up with six, all different scenarios, and all were profoundly interesting in terms of the business implications. Stage Four: Is a brainstorm to argue about which scenario(s) to adopt. By and large, an eye-opener for all concerned: a new way of working, indeed. A very illuminating experience. Stage Five: is a process in which the facilitator comes up with 'The Design' that is then presented to allow for reactions and identify the core teams that would begin to implement new strategy. Stage Six: We all switch avatars and try it all over again.
  • They are doing so because they realize that as more companies and corporations use the technology in online environments, the more private citizens will expect government to follow suit and make SERVICE and alternative forms of service available. Since there certainly has already been major changes due to the decline of the nation state, the rise of multi-national corporations, privatization of government agencies, outsourcing some operations to save money, deregulation of government, global communications, and a move towards a business-oriented government, government has little choice but to keep up with the latest technological trends, and because the government gets to take advantage of some of the latest technologies being developed by private companies, it is in a good position. And by studying the role-playing in the previous slide, one can see that avatar technology is not just a way a person can hide their identity. It is much more powerful than that because it actually allows another viewpoint to enter the picture. If the issue is cutting down an ancient forest, for example, and all involved really take their roles seriously and mix and match them, you can literally 'walk in another's shoes.' Walking in someone else's shoes is an integral part of what it is to be human; alas, it something many have forgotten how to do. Avatars can help lead the way back.
  • Finally, there seems to be a problem with terminology: some researchers are very hesitant about using the term ‘avatar’ because of its gaming connections, and prefer instead, to use bot or intelligent agent. Others use these terms interchangeably. There is no universal agreement on terms, although most creators refer to an avatar as a character driven by a real person while a bot is a character driven by a program.
  • However, I believe Howard Rheingold makes an important point when he made the following remarks: “Frankly, I think avatars are only interesting to a small fraction of the online population. In other words, it is NOT significant in general, and I would hazard to guess even LESS significant in organizations. My prediction is that avatars will fail or will end up being trivial in knowledge management. Authentic community building -- not a technical, but a social matter -- is, IMO, far more important." I think he is right because he is pointing out that using avatar technology should not be a game that people play, nor should it be used to attain anonymity and help people to carry out destructive behaviour on company Intranets. Pretending we are someone else is just not good enough, if that is the only angle, nor does it build community or allegiance. Avatar technology can help certain individuals break out of their shells, and that is good, but as has already been pointed out, the best scenario is for us to don our avatars so that we can see every side of an important issue, and to prevent bottlenecks. That makes it a very powerful technology.
  • -- Being global means keeping up with global technology if you don't want to be left behind. -- Avatar technology can help save money in travel costs. -- Better service means becoming more flexible and offering customers as many ways as possible to serve them. -- Prototypes such as those offered by Xerox in the Office Pals project help with filtering information and multi-tasking considerations and frees up time by taking care of the more mundane chores. -- Once big corporations like insurance companies decide to have avatar hosts and other employees waiting at their Internet offices to offer service and information, the government will have to follow suit. -- If customers or information-seekers can go to virtual offices and collect information from friendly avatars, government could save huge amounts of money in connection with their 800 numbers. Especially in a few years when so many more people will be on the grid. --Avatars can surely help smooth the flow of information through Intranets and Internet sites.
  • Avatar Technology

    1. 1. Avatar Technology What is it? What are some of the prototypes? What can it do for us? What is the Future?
    2. 2. Definitions <ul><li>Originally the term avatar came from Hindu mythology and is the name for the temporary body a god inhabits while visiting Earth. </li></ul><ul><li>Avatar can also denote an embodiment or concrete manifestation of an abstract concept. </li></ul><ul><li>Avatar was first coined for use in describing users' visual embodiment in Cyberspace by Chip Morningstar in the early days of Habitat back in 1985. </li></ul>
    3. 3. Definitions <ul><li>Simply put, an avatar is You, or at least a facsimile of you. It is a graphical image of a user, representing yourself or someone else on a computer screen. Think of an avatar as your alter ego in the virtual world of cyberspace. </li></ul><ul><li>It is your body double in Cyberspace, your presence in the virtual communities growing inside two and three dimensional virtual worlds online. </li></ul>
    4. 4. Definitions <ul><li>Another kind of avatar is sometimes called an agent, a character, or a bot. This is a graphical personification of a computer or a process that is running on a computer. </li></ul><ul><li>Avatars, or virtual representations of living creatures, and their networked environments, represent the next major wave in online communications. </li></ul><ul><li>The avatars are usually visual representations of other software processes. </li></ul>
    5. 5. The Technological Reality <ul><li>Unlike virtual reality technology, 2D and 3D virtual worlds require no special gloves, visors or hardware gear. </li></ul><ul><li>Avatar technology can offer its share of technological benefits. For example, it is less bandwidth-intensive than regular Internet applications. </li></ul><ul><li>However, there are some technology issues that must be addressed if avatars are to become commonplace. </li></ul>
    6. 6. Current Projects <ul><li>Xerox Palo Alto Research Center: The Office Avatars Project </li></ul><ul><li>The goal of the Office Avatars project is to investigate the use of autonomous avatars in the workplace. In particular, it is interested in the role of an avatar as a personal representative which can provide useful information or other utility when the avatar's owner cannot be present. </li></ul>
    7. 7. Current Projects <ul><li>Schlumberger's advanced technical group asked Planet 9 to prototype an AI guide front end to their Intranet search engine. To date, the project has received ten million dollars in internal funding. </li></ul>
    8. 8. Current Projects <ul><li>Damer's company is working with a health insurance company in Europe. They want to have a virtual community for their customer base where people can come to their headquarters. </li></ul><ul><li>Damer says that,&quot;They represent a brand new meeting of human communications. The virtual worlds are worlds where people come to socialize, where people come to build cities, work, and try utopian experiences; to build together and learn together.&quot; </li></ul>
    9. 9. Current Projects <ul><li>Developed by David Colleen’s team at Planet 9, Genius is an avatar that greets and guides people in the fourteen Temps & Co. employment cafes in the Washington DC area. The character resides on their Intranet. </li></ul><ul><li>(Genius Grabs &quot;Best Episodic Performer&quot; award thanks to the Avatars 98 Judges. </li></ul><ul><li>http://www.planet9.com/indexie.htm) </li></ul>
    10. 10. Current Projects <ul><li>World Movers uses an avatar as a guide in Softbanks online version of the World Movers trade show. </li></ul>
    11. 11. What Can it do for us? <ul><li>Avatar technology is much better than Video Conferencing </li></ul><ul><li>It works well with Intranets that do not support Video Conferencing traffic </li></ul><ul><li>VRML avatars work with existing systems quite nicely </li></ul><ul><li>Avatars can prevent information bottlenecks due to personality clashes </li></ul>
    12. 12. What Can it do for us? <ul><li>Avatars can express emotion through facial expressions and body posture, and can point at artifacts being discussed. In other words, people can bring their stuff, like files, to an avatar meeting. </li></ul><ul><li>Avatars can act as personal representatives to maintain a sense of presence and cohesiveness within workgroups when members are absent. </li></ul>
    13. 13. What Can it do for us? <ul><li>Avatars are effective when co-worker information is very time critical (as in engineering development teams) or in which a sense of human presence is important, as in sales. </li></ul><ul><li>Can connect global offices and allow all employees to instantly connect to company data and archives. </li></ul>
    14. 14. The Future is Here <ul><li>Networks will address the chaos of information overload by providing individuals with the ability to tailor how they communicate with others. </li></ul><ul><li>It will be done by gathering, managing, and organizing information so it will be more accessible and more useful to individuals than ever before. </li></ul><ul><li>Using avatars that will provide the filtering, tuning, adjudication, and other flow controls on information. </li></ul>
    15. 15. The Future is Here <ul><li>Products from companies such as BlackSun Interactive, Integrated Data Systems, and Superscape coincide with a growing awareness of business uses for avatar technology. </li></ul><ul><li>It is expected that future generations of online users will enter bot (agent) or avatar (live people) inhabited spaces for help in the customer support sense, or in the library reference sense. </li></ul>
    16. 16. How are Other Governments Using the Technology? <ul><li>European countries are employing avatar technology and future scenario work in management planning. Often, the facilitator is an expert interactive software designer, who has involved the use of games and simulations for role playing and brainstorming purposes. </li></ul>
    17. 17. Why are Other Governments Using the Technology? <ul><li>Governments have no choice but to keep up with big business and the tools that are used to conduct transactions. </li></ul><ul><li>By employing avatar technology and incorporating it with scenarios, it can help us see the other side of issues: the proverbial ‘walking in another’s shoes.’ </li></ul>
    18. 18. Considerations <ul><li>“ Avatars represent the real time embodiment of people in cyberspace and the fundamental avenue to meaningful community and a sense of place and memory. Online for the general population and for the business world. Avatars and inhabited cyberspaces are in their early phases in terms of knowledge management, but they are here to stay.” </li></ul><ul><li>-- Bruce Damer </li></ul>
    19. 19. Considerations and Clarifications <ul><li>Avatar technology is a fairly new horizon and there is little consensus on what it will mean for society in the 21st century. </li></ul><ul><li>There is the added problem of very little information being accessible to those who want to learn more about the technology. </li></ul><ul><li>And problems with terminology. </li></ul>
    20. 20. Considerations <ul><li>There are some skeptics when it comes to this kind of technology, and that is partly due to the lack of information available. Others relate its use only to the way this technology is being used in chat rooms across the Internet: allowing people to hide behind an image, and even to change their character or sex. For some, this can be very good because it allows them to have more than one persona, and can therefore, allow innovative ideas to flow by freeing those who are cast in one corporate light and who are afraid to break the illusion. </li></ul>
    21. 21. Conclusions <ul><li>Global considerations </li></ul><ul><li>Travel restrictions </li></ul><ul><li>Service in the 21st Century </li></ul><ul><li>Better use of time, and using technological fixes to improve the way we do business </li></ul><ul><li>Information explosion needs filtering </li></ul><ul><li>Commodification of the Internet </li></ul><ul><li>Saves money in customer service telephone infrastructure and long distance fees </li></ul><ul><li>Strong ties to Knowledge Management </li></ul>
    22. 22. Acknowledgements <ul><li>I would like to thank the following people for contributing information, clarification, or examples of avatar technology: </li></ul><ul><li>Bruce Damer, President and CEO of DigitalSpace Corporation </li></ul><ul><li>David Colleen, Chief Architect, Planet 9 </li></ul><ul><li>Dr. Pattie Maes, MIT Media Laboratory </li></ul><ul><li>Dr. Thomas Stewart </li></ul><ul><li>Dr. Bill Truran </li></ul><ul><li>And Howard Rheingold, for his support </li></ul>