Avatar Gaze Breaks Fourth Wall

July 17, 2011

I’ve done a lot of pontificating about avatar gaze in virtual worlds (eye contact, and all the emotional and sometimes strange effects that this causes). I’m writing a paper called Virtual Gaze, soon to be published in a book by  ETC PressWhile checking on other references to avatar gaze, I came across this blog post by Ironyca about the avatars in Blue Mars. Here’s a picture from that blog:

That avatar is looking at ME! Creepy.

Wagner James Au comments on this effect in a blog post. He quotes the engineer who added this feature (Koji Nagashima):

“On a cinematic project,” Koji explains, “all animators carefully make animation for eyes. But in our world, the program needs to take care of that.” Eye animation in a virtual world or MMO is challenging because the avatar’s position or the user’s camera changes so often. “That’s very interesting for me,” Koji says.

Okay guys. It’s interesting, I agree. And it’s a cute trick. But it makes no sense to me. Have you thought about the media effects? Do you understand how this creeps out users? In cinema, there is this concept of Breaking the Fourth Wall, which refers to a fictional character acknowledging the reader/viewer/audience, and acknowledging the fact that he or she is fictional. The fourth wall, in this case, is the computer screen. So, what is the reason you broke this wall?

I developed avatar gaze code for There.com. This is described in my chapter, The Three Dimensional Music of Gaze. Gaze is a powerful form of body language, and virtual worlds, by and large, are still lacking in this form of expressive connectivity. The silent act of shooting a bit of eye contact on someone’s avatar can be a signal to start a conversation. It can show attraction, and it can show WHO YOU ARE TALKING TO (one bit of affordance that is often missing in virtual worlds). It can also create romantic effects, as shown in these pictures from There.com (the left image shows a prototype I developed with Chuck Clanton for chat props).

The Look

In real life, my wife only needs to make one quick glance at me, and I know that it is time to take out the trash. Or…depending on the timing, or the situation…it may mean something else entirely: something which is more fun than taking out the trash. This simple bit of body language is powerful indeed. Virtual gaze can enliven virtual worlds – infusing silent communicative energy between avatar faces. Virtual gaze gives virtual worlds increased validation as a communication medium of embodiment.


As far as Koji’s trick of having avatars break the fourth wall, I’d like to hear what you think. How does this effect the Blue Mars experience? Ironyca’s critique says it better than I could:

“At least she kept looking at me! I have always thought of an avatar as a virtual representation of me in cyberspace, but perhaps Blue Mars disagrees. To me, the identity immersion was completely broken by the fact my avatar liked to look at me (i.e. gaze at the “camera”), and sometimes her posing even looked flirtatious. I was highly disturbed by the fact, that my idea of her and me being the same was thrown overboard, when she continously decided to turn her head and smile at me. If she is looking at ME, I can’t be HER.”