Virtual Sentience Requires a Gaze

(This blog post is re-published from an earlier blog of mine called “avatar puppetry” – the nonverbal internet.  I originally wrote it in September of 2009. I’ll be phasing out that earlier blog, so I’m migrating a few of those earlier posts here before I trash it).

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I was speaking with my colleague Michael Nixon at the School of Interactive Art and Technology. We were talking about body language in non-human animated characters. He commented that before you can imbue a virtual character with apparent sentience, it has to have the ability to GAZE – in other words, look at something. In other words, it has a head with eyes. Or maybe just a head. Or… a “head”.

Here’s the thing about gaze: it pokes out of the local (“lonely”) coordinate system of the character and into the global (“social”) coordinate system of the world and other sentient beings. Gaze is the psychic vector that connects a character with the world. The character “places it’s gaze upon the world”. Luxo Jr is a great example of imbuing an otherwise inanimate object with sentience (and lots of personality besides) by using body language such as gaze.

I have observed something missing in video conferencing. Gaze. Notice in this set of four images how the video chat participants cannot make eye-contact with each other. This is because they are not sharing the same physical 3D space. Nor are they sharing the same virtual 3D space!

Gaze is one of the most powerful communicative elements of natural language, along with the musicality of speech, and of course facial and bodily gesture. This is especially true among groups of young single people in which hormones are flying, and flirtation, coyness, and jealousy create a symphony of psychic vectors…


At There.com, I designed the initial avatar gaze system. With the help of Chuck Clanton, I created an “intimacam”, which aimed perpendicular to the consensual gaze of the avatars, and zoomed-in closer when the avatar heads came closer to each other.

The greatest animators have known about the power of gaze for as long as the craft has existed. This highly-social component of body language has a mathematical manifestation in the virtual spaces of cartoons, computer games, and virtual worlds. And it is one of the many elements that will become refined and codified and included into the virtual body language of the internet.

Human communication is migrating over to the internet – the geo-cortex of posthumanity. Text is leading the way. Body language has some catching up to do. Brian Rotman has some interesting things to say along these lines in his book, Becoming Beside Ourselves.

We can learn a lot from Pixar animators, as well as psychologists and actors, as we develop virtual worlds and collaborative workspaces.

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In response to my earlier post, Laban-for-animators expert Leslie Bishko made this comment:

“My .2c – breath promotes the illusion of sentience, gaze promotes the illusion of interaction and relationship!”

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