High Fidelity: Body Language through “Telekinesics”

June 2, 2013

Human communication demonstrates the usual punctuated equilibria of any natural evolutionary system. From hand gestures to grunts to telephones to email and beyond, human communication has not only evolved, but splintered off into many modalities and degrees of asynchrony.

hifi-logoI recently had the great fortune to join a company that is working on the next great surge in human communication: High Fidelity, Inc. This company is bringing together several new technologies to make this happen.

So, what is the newest evolutionary surge in human communication? I would describe it using a term from Virtual Body Language (page 22):

Telekinesics is a word invented to denote…”the study of all emerging nonverbal practices across the internet, by adding the prefix, tele to Birdwhistell’s, term kinesics. It could easily be confused with “telekinesis”: the ability to cause movement at a distance through the mind alone (the words differ by only one letter). But hey, these two phenomena are not so different anyway, so a slip of the tongue wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Telekinesics may be defined as “the science of body language as conducted over remote distances via some medium, including the internet”. 

And now it’s not just science, but practice: body language is ready to go online…in realtime.

And when I say “realtime” – I mean, pretty damn fast, compared to most things that zip (or try to zip) across the internet. And when we’re talking about subtle head nods, changes in eye contact, fluctuations in your voice, and shoulder shrugs, fast is not just a nicety, it is a necessity – for clear communication using a body.

Here’s Ryan Downe showing an early stage of avatar head movement using Google Glass.

Philip Rosedale, the founder of High Fidelity, often talks about how cool it would be for my avatar to walk up to your avatar and give it a little shoulder-shove, or a fist-bump, or an elbow-nudge, or a hug…and for your avatar to respond with a slight – but noticeable – movement.

It would appear that human touch (or at least the visual/audible representation of human touch) is on the verge of becoming a reality – through telekinesics. Of all the modalities and senses that we use to communicate, touch is the most primal: we share it with the oldest microorganisms.

touch_avatarWhen touch is manifest on the internet, along with highly-crafted virtual environments, maybe, just maybe, we will have reached that stage in human evolution when we can have a meaningful, intimate exchange – even if one person is in Shanghai and the other is in Chicago.

small_earthAnd that means people can stop having to fly around the world and burning fossil fuels in order to have 2-hour-long business meetings. And that means reducing our carbon footprint. And that means we might have a better chance of not pissing-off Mother Earth to the degree that she has a spontaneous fever and shrugs us off like pesky fleas.

Which would really suck.

So…keep an eye on what we’re doing at High Fidelity, and get ready for the next evolutionary step in human communication. It just might be necessary for our survival.

Voice as Puppeteer

May 5, 2012

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


According to Gestural Theory, verbal language emerged from the primal energy of the body, from physical and vocal gestures.


The human mind is at home in a world of abstract symbols – a virtual world separated from the gestural origins of those symbols. An evolution from the analog to the digital continues today with the flood of the internet over earth’s geocortex. Our thoughts are awash in the alphabet: a digital artifact that arose from a gestural past. It’s hard to imagine that the mind could have created the concepts of Self, God, Logic, and Math: belief structures so deep in our wiring – generated over millions of years of genetic, cultural, and neural evolution. I’m not even sure if I fully believe that these structures are non-eternal and human-fabricated. Since the Copernican Revolution yanked humans out from the center of the universe, it continues to progressively kick down the pedestals of hubris. But, being humans, we cannot stop this trajectory of virtuality, even as we become more aware of it as such.

I’ve observed something about the birth of online virtual worlds, and the foundational technologies involved. One of the earliest online virtual worlds was Onlive Traveler, which used realtime voice.


My colleague, Steve DiPaola invented some techniques for Traveler which cause the voice to animate the floating faces that served as avatars.

But as online virtual worlds started to proliferate, they incorporated the technology of chat rooms – textual conversations. One quirky side-effect of this was the collision of computergraphical humanoid 3D models with text-chat. These are strange bedfellows indeed – occupying vastly different cognitive dimensions.


Many of us worked our craft to make these bedfellows not so strange, such as the techniques that I invented with Chuck Clanton at There.com, called Avatar Centric Communication.

Later, voice was introduced to There.com. I invented a technique for There.com voice chat, and later re-implemented a variation for Second Life, for voice-triggered gesticulation.

Imagine the uncanny valley of hearing real voices coming from avatars with no associated animation. When I first witnessed this in a demo, the avatars came across as propped-up corpses with telephone speakers attached to their heads. Being so tuned-in to body language as I am, I got up on the gesticulation soap box and started a campaign to add voice-triggered animation. As an added visual aid, I created the sound wave animation that appears above avatar heads for both There and SL…


Gesticulation is the physical-visual counterpart to vocal energy – we gesticulate when we speak – moving our eyebrows, head, hands, etc. – and it’s almost entirely unconscious. Since humans are so verbally-oriented, and since we expect our bodies to produce natural body language to correspond to our spoken communications, we should expect the same of our avatars. This is the rationale for avatar gesticulation.

I think that a new form of puppeteering is on the horizon. It will use the voice. And it won’t just take sound signal amplitudes as input, as I did with voice-triggered gesticulation. It will parse the actual words and generate gestural emblems as well as gesticulations. And just as we will be able to layer filters onto our voices to mask our identities or role-play as certain characters, we will also be able to filter our body language to mimic the physical idiolects of Egyptians, Native Americans, Sicilians, four-year-old Chinese girls, and 90-year old Ethiopian men.

Digital-alphabetic-technological humanity reaches down to the gestural underbelly and invokes the primal energy of communication. It’s a reversal of the gesture-to-words vector of Gestural Theory.

And it’s the only choice we have for transmitting natural language over the geocortex, because we are sitting on top of a thousands-year-old heap of alphabetic evolution.

A Future Man Experiences Sex as a Female

April 20, 2012

I am a heterosexual male, happily married, and by most accounts, normal and healthy. This blog post is a what-if, extrapolating upon the idea of having a virtual body…..


Frank Zappa said that the dirtiest part of your body is your mind. It is hard to disagree with this. Your mind is capable of generating some serious filth (unless you never bathe, in which case, it is possible that parts of your body may actually be dirtier than your mind).

Obviously, the body has something to do with sex. But there is indeed a psychological, cognitive, emotional, imaginative dimension. It seems that these mental aspects of sex become more important as we get older. One obvious reason: aging. Entropy! Deteriorating, wrinkling, flabbifying, and weakening our bodies. But our aging minds are often as sharp as ever, and capable of higher dimensions of love and romance (and filth). It’s a shame that youth must be wasted on the young. I am referring to us in our earlier years when we had great bodies and great physical strength…but OH how immature we were.

Ray Kurzweil and other futurists suggest that virtual reality will be fully-integrated into our lives in the future. One could also assume that virtual sex will continue from its current occasional manifestations of phone sex, sexting, and avatar play in virtual worlds. There are already non-technological forms of virtual reality such as imaginative play, role-playing, etc. It’s only recently that technology has evolved enough to enhance the experience (or ruin it…depending on your vantage point).

Fantastic Sex at Age 100

The difference between mortality and immortality will become fuzzier in the future. Humans may achieve a certain kind of immortality by having their brains uploaded into a virtual reality when they are physically dead (or transformed into a cyborg, whichever comes first). This of course is based on the assumption that one can still experience a continuous life, having nothing left but a brain, and that this brain can be uploaded to some renewable medium…highly-debatable at this early juncture. But let’s roll with it anyway. I can imagine that a 100-year old future human might engage in sex with all the vigor and muscle tone associated with youth (think Jake Sully in Avatar who got his legs back as a Na’vi). Think of this youthful sex…but with the imagination, wisdom, and capacity for love that only a 100-year-old could possess.

I’m a software guy, not a hardware guy, so I can’t say much about nanobots and teledildonics and other technological enhancements of human physicality. But I can imagine that given the appropriate virtual reality enhancements, I could experience something akin to being a female. If nanobots are indeed a part of our future, they might be able to stimulate the brain chemistry and bodily sensation associated with female thoughts and feelings.

Is this a good thing? It is a bit creepy. But I say it is a good thing. Here’s why: human imagination has no limits. Human creativity knows no bounds. The desire to understand how others experience the world is based on empathy and natural social bonding. Technology can be used for this purpose.

An earlier blog post I wrote explores the question of how we might experience non-human embodiment, and body language, through future virtual reality technology. Within the realm of human society, there are still a lot of experiences and perspectives that can be shared. It might help us understand each other a bit better. Empathy could be technologically-enhanced; generated through simulation and virtuality.

And it might make for some awesome sex.

One can only imagine. (That’ll have to do for now).

Here’s a piece by Robert Weiss about the pros and cons of virtual sex.