Sunday, December 9, 2007

Virtual Embodiment

- by Magellan Egoyan

The notion of "virtual embodiment" requires a little thought since to many people it sounds like a contradiction in terms. The concept of virtual embodiment derives from our ability to separate "embodiment as performance" from "embodiment as (proprioceptive) sensation". In today's world, our experience of direct bodily sensation (called "proprioception") is mostly the result of our encounter with the physical world and not with virtual environments, although certain technologies currently under development contain the potential of modifying this. On the other hand, our embodied experience of the world also includes the ways in which our actions bring about changes in our understanding of ourselves, our emotional makeup, and our conscious and unconscious behaviours. The performative characteristic of embodied experience is not necessarily associated with our physical body. If we act within virtual spaces, especially in a way that is mediated by a virtual body, then we may have a variety of experiences that are experienced as embodied. Hence we can meaningfully talk about "virtual embodiment" in this way.

What do we know about embodiment in virtual worlds? First of all, our performative definition of embodiment implies that it is how we act that determines our embodied experience. While each of us may act differently as individuals, resulting in a rather different embodied experience for each of us, we can generate a list of the types of actions one can perform in any given virtual world, and hence generate a common portrait of embodiment. Note that our possible actions derive not just from our (virtual) body's capabilities, but also from the actions that are supported by the (virtual) environment.

Let us form a list of possible actions, using Second Life as a case example. We shall separate the list into actions that are shared with embodiment in the real, physical world (that is, between our physical bodies and the physical world) and actions that are unique or distinct in the virtual world (that is, between our virtual body and the virtual world).

Embodied actions common to both physical and virtual worlds :
(1) We can change how we move and our overall body posture ;
(2) We can change clothes and accessories ;
(3) We can communicate by voice with other people or machines;
(4) We can change the social networks with which we are engaged ;
(5) We can construct mobile, changing, communicating objects (albeit not so easily in in the physical world)
(6) We can change our modes of communication and the forms of expression ;
(7) We can go through the motions of eating, sleeping, and sexual activity ;
(8) We can form binding emotional relationships with other people ;
(9) We can access information in a vast variety of forms
(10)We can work and earn a living ;

Embodied actions that are only possible in the virtual world :
(11) We can change our basic body structure and avatar appearance (e.g. from a human to an animal, a robot, a box, etc.) ;
(12) We can change our avatar's gender and hence modify the gender expectations of others ;
(13) We can change and/or multiply our virtual identity (e.g. have several different avatar bodies) ;
(14) We can readily change or modify or construct major parts of the environment ;
(15) We can examine the world from a viewpoint that is semi-independent from our avatar's position ;
(16) We can act and communicate with much less fear for our safety ;

Embodied actions that are only possible in the physical world (as of today) :
(17) When we engage in activities with our bodies, these actions change our physical states (hunger, thirst, sexual appetite, fatigue, muscle tone, body structure, get pregnant and give birth) ;
(18) We can lose body function or have it degrade over time, injure it, and so forth - hence safety is a constant preoccupation ;
(19) We can have physical and physically proximal contact with other persons/bodies ;
(20) We grow and change physically and are subject to bodily rhythms and cycles ;
(21) We have access to the full sensory input of which our bodies are capable ;
(22) We can die, and hence must take care of our physical survival and well-being.

So our next question is, so what? What, if any, effects does virtual embodiment have on our everyday behaviour? Here, then, is another list of the effects or impacts of virtual embodiement :
(1) Can generate a sense of physical and/or social empowerment - this derives from the observation that we can do a variety of things within virtual environments that are difficult for us to do or to explore in real environments ;
(2) We may learn new movements and postures via the engagement of mirror neurons, motor imagery and mental practice ;
(3) We can improve our overall ability to learn using embodied forms of learning ;
(4) We can affect our unconscious attitudes and behaviours ;
(5) We can affect the unconscious attitudes and behaviours of other people ;
(6) We can modify the way we understand and enter into social engagements ;
(7) We can change how we understand and interact with real (physical) environments :
(8) We can modify how we access information in the real world ;
(9) We can change our relationship to our own creativity ;
(10) We can distract from or endanger our own physical survival ;
(11) We can overcome phobias and other emotional barriers to certain forms of behaviour ;
(12) We can explore the nature of the self and our identity in a relatively safe environment ;
(13) We can exacerbate access to and use of inappropriate behaviour (e.g. certain forms of griefing) ;
(14) Virtual embodiment may exacerbate tensions or strengthen power inequalities between social groups in real life ;
(15) Virtual embodiment may promote certain forms of violence.

Many of these points are supported by research results, albeit still rather partial at this point in time. A great deal of work remains to be done to determine not just that we can modify behaviours, but exactly how and under what circumstances such modification may take place. Furthermore, much of this list presents benefits - only a few items clearly present forms of danger. However, it is likely that there are more dangers to virtual embodiment than are presented here. Research needs to be undertaken to determine more precisely what these dangers are.

Finally, we may ask, given the list of effects and impacts, what actions might we take to enhance the positive benefits of virtual embodiment? Here's a short list of possible actions :
(1) Increase the range of movements and animations available or used within the virtual world ;
(2) Increase awareness of the benefits (and dangers) of virtual embodiment ;
(3) Develop virtual learning environment that take more full advantage of virtual embodiment ;
(4) Improve our understanding of virtual embodiment and its benefits and dangers ;
(5) Develop more mixed reality events ensuring a stronger transfer of benefits from virtual experience to everyday life.

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