Research - Avatar as Prosthesis

Vilayanur Ramachandran - Mirror Neurons

A fascinating TED Talk by neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran about the function and evidence for mirror neurons. The talk discusses how this neuropsychological mechanism has shaped human evolution and particularly our interactions with each other in society. Could mirror neurons be a key to understanding the puzzle of how and why people today seem to be able to so quickly identify with and react emotionally and intensely to avatars, which are – after all – really just pixels flashing on a screen. Perhaps we play with avatars the way younger children play with dolls and puppets – as stand-ins for social interaction.

Avatar Therapy helps confront distressing voices

Fascinating video clip of a therapist treating a client with Schizophrenia using an avatar interface to simulate distressing inner voices and give the client training in controlling and overcoming the negative messages his voices communicate.
From the video description: „Antipsychotic drugs may do more harm than good. The tide is turning towards gentler methods, from talking therapies to brain training. Psychologists at King’s College London are leading a large scale trial to evaluate the effectiveness of avatar therapy for distressing voices experienced by patients with schizophrenia.“

What is an avatar anyway?

In the context of the project Avatar as Prosthesis, an avatar should not be understood only as a figure in a computer game or a VR character we design for ourselves. The research and thinking in this project applies equally to much more common forms of avatars, like profile photos on social media platforms. In fact, an Instagram page is a sort of abstracted avatar that functions, actually, in much the same way as an animated, customised figure in a virtual world like Second Life. In this interesting article in the New Yorker, the writer muses about the value (or lack thereof) of supposed shows of solidarity made through standardised adjustments to social media avatars.

Origins of the avatar

From the Sanskrit origins, to the 1980s cult classic game, Habitat, to the ubiquitous chatroom images of the 90s, this is an accessible summary of the origins of the „avatar“ before it became the subject of a blockbuster Hollywood film. Also check out this wonderful promotional video for the game, Habitat. #mediahistory

Avatars and the rapidly shifting times

This article from the New York Times in 2008 demonstrates just how far – and how rapidly – the concept of an avatar, in its contemporary, digital form, has progressed. Although the text was written less than a decade ago, it might as well be written on papyrus and covered in cobwebs for all the relevance it has to today’s concepts of an avatar. Today, in a world that is being rapidly digitalised and whose reality is increasingly augmented by digital media, handheld devices, and online social everything, the idea of an avatar is much less a cute, customisable figure we adopt occasionally, and much more a lived reality. One which we spend a considerable portion of our lives maintaining, curating, grooming, and promoting.

Second Bodies, Sandra Danilovic

Digital humanities scholar and filmmaker, Sandra Danilovic, created Second Bodies in 2009; it is one of the seminal documentaries investigating the relationship between virtual reality platform users and their avatars, particularly in relationship to mental and physical wellbeing or impairment. The documentary looks particularly at users of the then popular VR platform Second Life, but the questions it raises and the implications it draws are equally applicable to other online gaming or social media platforms.
For more discussion, watch the Second Life video interview between Sandra Danilovic and Gretta Louw.

Amelia (Amanda) Baggs - In My Language

Amelia (Amanda) Baggs is a powerful advocate for the recognition and increased understanding of people on the autism spectrum in the wider community. Her rahter hauntingly beautiful video In My Language is a fantastic example of an online medium and network tools being employed as both an avatar and a prosthesis. By combining the video footage of herself communicating and interacting with her environment with an audio narration explaining – or, as she writes, ‚translating‘ her ’native language‘ – she is able to make the inner workings of her mind available to others who don’t share her experience of the world. Amelia Baggs writes, „This is not a look-at-the-autie gawking freakshow as much as it is a statement about what gets considered thought, intelligence, personhood, language, and communication, and what does not.“ Baggs, who apparently does not speak, also uses a blog to communicate about her experiences with a broad audience.