Assignment 5 >
Active Worlds |
Active Worlds is a set of 3D environments where users are represented by 3D-model avatars. Each environment resembles a physical landscape, and buildings, billboards, and natural objects have been decorated according to the theme of the environment. Users control the movement and gesture of the avatars; there is no notion of facial expression. The gestures available to a trial user are TURN, HAPPY, WAVE, JUMP, MACA (macarena), and DANCE.
The Active Worlds interface presents the 3D graphical view and the chat messages in two separate frames. When a user writes a message, the text is displayed in the top graphical view (above the head of his or her avatar) as well as in the bottom chat message listing. The chat message listing is similar to the standard scrolling text-only chat display.
Environment design and impact on communication
Even though many of the Active Worlds environments have been designed to resemble the physical world we live in, certain real-world principles do not apply, with resulting impact on communication.
Active Worlds does not use the physical proximity metaphor that Chat Circles implements. I can send a message from any part of the environment, and the text is made visible to every other user in the chat message listing. The text is also made visible in the other users' graphical view, if their view contains my character; the text will be displayed regardless of how far away my character is within the view. Thus, avatar position and movement are not directly tied to the communicative features of the system. Because of this feature, some users did not feel it necessary to bring their avatars together into a shared space in order to have a conversation. They simply used the message listing as a simple text-only chat device if the other person was not nearby, instead of first looking for the person in the graphical view. Since avatar movement is not tied to the communication in any meaningful way, and the gesture set is very limited, the graphical view remained mostly static even during busy chat conversations. Part of this is the fault of the interface for controlling the avatar. If it was easy to zap your avatar close to someone you wish to talk to, or easy to make a large variety of animated gestures, perhaps different behaviors would have emerged.
Active Worlds does not conform to the laws of gravity. Users can cause the avatars to float up to the sky, and they will remain there, walking on air. This fanciful feature had an interesting effect on communicative behavior. Users would spontaneously agree to meet "above the dome" or "up by the building" for conversation. Even though their messages were visible to all users in the environment, the act of bringing their avatars close together - away from others - seemed to create a soft shell of intimacy. The fact that the shared space happened to be in the air, not easily visible to most other users standing on the ground, heightened this sense of private conversation. Flight also provided a fanciful joint activity for many users: "hey everyone let's fly up to the roof!"
Some graphical forms of communicative competence:
WeaknessI felt that the biggest weakness of Active Worlds was the weak integration of the graphical elements and the communicative process. The display of message text above the heads of avatars was not very helpful, because the text became difficult to read in conversations with several avatars close to each other. The avatar gestures did not provide enough expressive power above and beyond the textual component. Avatars also could not interact in any meaningful way within the graphical view. For these reasons, I noticed that avatars were often standing still or outside the view of each other during conversations. The graphical aspect served as a pleasant distraction, but I feel that it did not provide a significant channel for additional expression.