“The virtual communities created by online games have provided us with a new medium for social interaction and communication. Avatar Machine is a system which replicates the aesthetics and visuals of third person gaming, allowing the user to view themselves as a virtual character in real space via a head mounted interface. The system potentially allows for a diminished sense of social responsibility, and could lead the user to demonstrate behaviours normally reserved for the gaming environment.”
That was the blurb i read on the website of Charming Disaster , an exhibition featuring several works created by students of the Royal College of Art’s Design Products department (thanks Noam for telling me about it!) What i like about Avatar Machine is that, like the One Eye Ball but unlike several similar projects i’ve blogged in the past, it’s not just about coming up with a nice, funky, geeky project before everybody else, it is also a very eye-pleasing work. I love the way that the designer pushed the concept further by making the user wear the costume of an avatar, i imagine that it allows observers to participate (albeit in a much more discreet way) to the experience. So i asked design student Marc Owens to tell me more about the work.
How does it work technically?
The system works in a very simple way. The user wears a body harness, which has three 2m long aluminium rods protruding from it, to form a type of tripod. A wide angle pinhole camera exists at the point where all three rods meet. The camera is pointing directly back at the user. The video footage being recorded by the camera is transmited to the monitor inside the headset so it can be viewed by the user. Therefore the user can see themselves in the third person, from head to toe on the monitor interface.
It is WoW that inspired the kind of costume that the player has to wear in your installation, did i get that right? Any reason why you chose to refer to WoW?
You are correct in thinking that the project is World of Warcraft inspired. As the worlds most popular online game, the asthetics and characters of WOW are the most easily recognisable, also i wanted the character i created through the costume be be large in stature, so the user could experience a sense in invincibility when controlling the avatar on the interface. Also, WOW, is more classically fantasy based than other MMORPGs, like second life for example, so that is an element i wanted to bring into the experience of the product.
Thirdly, i am ashamed to admit, quite a fan of World of Warcraft!
Which kind of behaviour did you observe when visitors of the Charming Disaster were playing with your work?
At the Charming Disaster show a few weeks ago, the screen within the headset burned out after an hour into the performance. So only one or two people had the opportunity to experience the system. However since then, i have carried out some avatar sessions in Hyde Park, allowing ample room for the user to do as they wish, and behave as they like.
The types of behaviour i observed were all quite similar. That being, everyone was quite cautious with their movements to begin with, moving around with baby steps as they slowly got used to controling their movement from the third person perspective. After a few minutes, users began to gain confidence not only with faster and more fluid movement, but also began to mimic the types on movement that they imagined the avatar would demonstrate, ie: stoping around and swinging of arms. Another element to the type of behaviour i observed was that after getting used to using the system, users felt comfortable enough to approach passing ‘humans’ and observed their reaction through the interface.
All images courtesy of Marc Owens.