Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

Shifting dimensions

Would work be better as avatars?


Published on December 17, 2020

Recently, I walk into a conference room for a team meeting, our first outside Zoom since February.

Walk is maybe the wrong word. I materialize into a body that’s seated at a table. And it feels kind of nice being positioned again in front of this circular object that has the textural semblance of wood. 

We’re gathering in a virtual space managed by Teooh, one of many avatar conferencing apps that have recently sprouted in a crowded field. Most of them, like the Sims-style Spatial and Enterprise-ready Glue, require fancy VR goggles and sensors to move through space and manipulate objects. Teooh is more stripped down. You download an app, scroll through a wardrobe of facial features, hairstyles, and clothes, and click into a room that looks like a Marriott banquet hall. Like a lot of apps, it’s in beta, which is to say it works but imperfectly.

My team’s elected to meet here for purely social reasons, a good thing because my boss who’d normally run meetings is among those struggling to connect his microphone. Among my colleagues present is a gentleman we realize was unknowingly embodied with a gnarly ponytail he does not physically have. I click a button in the corner of the screen that allows me to laugh. My body hurls forward with the grace of a Muppet, and cry-laugh emojis spring like a fountain from my head. We all start laughing with two bodies, clicking the button again and again. 

After some small talk, our boss finally appears. He apologizes for his audio trouble, as his mouth undulates and hands gesture in the most emphatically general way—like he’s saying both how dare you! and ta-da! We welcome him by smashing another button that directs our arms upwards like a cheer, but then he disappears. This cycle completes again before we decide to recongregate on VC. 

In what is likely a first for 2020, a coworker says, “it’s such a relief to be back on Zoom!” And while I don’t disagree, I have to say there was a special something about this experience that was hard to put into words—almost like I’d hung out with my co-workers for the first time in Covid-world. 

Being there

Dr. Robby Ratan, a scholar at MSU who researches human-technology interactions, had a name for what I described: “Ah, the perceptual illusion of non-mediation.” Translation: the avatar app drew out a modicum of the feeling it was designed to—that I was somehow physically with my team. A part of me forgot that event was mediated. 

In studying virtual settings, Dr. Ratan has observed that the perceptual illusion of non-mediation actually has very little to do with the plausibility of an environment and more so to do with field of vision. In Teooh, I could look out at a table and see a collection of faces that represented my co-workers, and even though they looked only a few degrees more human-like than an Animal Crossing character, their position in space turned up the volume of presence—as Dr. Ratan defines it, “a state of full attention to a world that is important to you in the moment.” This state can be achieved on all kinds of dimensions.

Zoom’s gallery grid doesn’t offer the spatial presence of being at a table with people we are connecting with. In fact, unlike a physical conference room, those who Zoom are expected to appear engaged by staring at a collection of faces in other rooms. That, in its own right, can be overwhelming and distractingly unpresent. One way of alleviating that stress, as Dr. Ratan demonstrates, is a Loomie, a Bitmoji-like avatar constructed from a selfie. To fake eye contact and create more rapport, it autocorrects your gaze to the camera without the awkwardness of staring directly at a camera lens. For a moment, I’m taken back by the intimacy of a cartoon looking me dead in the eyes. But even without this goofy layer, he explains, Zoom is actually nothing more than an avatar conferencing app—one, he adds, that’s remarkably great at social presence. 

When we Zoom, we project digital depictions of ourselves. “Those happen to look pretty photorealistic, but that’s not actually always the case,” he says and opens up his settings. He toggles off his Touch Up feature—“See, now there’s my wrinkles”—and on—”smooth skin, less beard.” What I’m seeing, he explains, is an avatar, even though I treat it as very physically real. 

There are a lot of opportunities that come along with mediated settings, particularly in education, which Dr. Ratan knows firsthand as a professor. While we aren’t even successfully getting laptops to all students, a basic necessity for distance learning, he imagines a world where spatial presence in a classroom could be enhanced by access to VR. “If you’re learning biology, you want to see and feel the cell structure, instead of just reading about it in a textbook. What if you could?” 

The app drew out a modicum of the feeling it was designed to—that I was physically with my team. A part of me forgot the experience was mediated. 

Technology with social presence also comes with unique advantages. “If you can clearly see the facial movements of your instructor, you feel more closely connected,” he says. “When that occurs, your heart rate variability increases based on what’s happening around you, which means your brain is optimized with the rest of your body to take in relevant information.” Commenting features and engagement tools like Slido, which polls students and allows them to upvote each other’s answers, can also help increase presence, and thereby open up pathways to learning. 

But what about the presence teachers feel? As any teacher whose endured 2020 virtually knows, this is often hard to achieve over a Zoom where 30 students are represented by blacked out squares. In a recent Economist Intelligence Unit survey, non-management staff in education cited their number one reason for disengagement was a feeling of disconnection. Put another way, teachers in a virtual setting often experience an absence of presence. On some level, we’ve all felt that in 2020.

How many times have you heard someone say “it feels like a movie”? (In fact, when there is a movie about this year, some indie director could very well name it that). Psychologists call this dissonant state inverse presence. In a positive light, inverse presence can be a useful method of coping. In a less positive one, it means you’re disengaged from reality. In fact, inverse presence has also been defined as the perceptual illusion of mediation—the feeling you’re in a mediated state, that you’re not “really” there.

And that’s sort of true. In the same way a video game that embodies you as a deep-sea dolphin can feel astonishingly alive, non-virtual existence can be radically dull, out-of-body even. What’s real can’t always be touched. 

A seat at the virtual table

While only four out of 10 adults with disabilities in America are employed, the rise of remote work has weakened the barriers of people who inhabit innumerable realities. As activist Alice Wong puts it, “there’s such diversity in the types of disabilities, just the ways people live.” Before the ubiquity of WFH, people were more likely to be challenged to commute with Parkinson’s, sit for hours at a time with chronic pain, or endure stressful corporate meetings that are crushing even for people without crippling anxiety. Modern work could be so much more inclusive if it was untethered from the constraints of physical offices.

This existence has already been partially realized on SecondLife, a virtual metaverse that has recently seen a pandemic surge near its 2007 peak of 1.1M active users. A census of SecondLife estimated that 40-60% of “residents” experience some form of disability, and many live in communities like Virtual Ability Island, which houses thousands. As writer Kristin French described in WIRED, its builders designed this space with the understanding that “disability is created by the environment. There are no stairs on Virtual Ability Island—only ramps.” 

UCI anthropologist Dr. Tom Boellstorff has spent a great deal of time in SecondLife observing this population, who’ve unlocked new ways to form meaningful relationships and express themselves from the comfort of their physical homes. In a 2018 documentary on this research, a participant who goes by Jadyn Firehawk recalls losing her career in academia after being overwhelmed by the publish-or-perish demands of her employer. In SecondLife, she found a supportive community and also a novel presentation to make her “invisible” bipolar disorder visible as an avatar. She wraps her head in a bandage she calls a brain sling: “When someone wears a sling on their arm, no one asks them to lift a heavy object,” she says. The brain sling functions as a sort of sign, the kind we don’t wear around in “real life,” she says. “It might be nice if we did!” 

But what if that was possible? What if we had spaces that allowed us to more easily express things at work that mattered? Moving more meetings to shared virtual spaces wouldn’t just make work more accessible to all bodies—it would open up new opportunities for authenticity. For instance, a teammate who didn’t yet feel safe presenting their gender in a physical setting might do so virtually.

Dr. Boellstorf recalls one Second Life resident who recently passed. “Oh, she loved meeting people there. She loved not having to tell people she was 93—not at first. She was proud of her age, but if they saw her as a bent over woman, they would pass her by on the street, as if she was a statue.” Her story echoed a common refrain from his conversations about SecondLife: “You get to know people from the inside out.”

Moving meetings to shared virtual spaces wouldn’t just make work more accessible to all bodies—it would open up new opportunities for authenticity.

That’s not to imply we should experience the totality of our co-workers, but virtual spaces could allow us greater visibility into what’s not easily seen and more control over how we we are perceived. “Work is about more than just the work, right?” Dr. Boelllstorf asks. “It's about social relationships, creativity, and other meaningful things.” From his research, he believes virtual worlds can be better spaces for those values than physical ones. 

Obvious but important, he also points out a virtual environment can be fun, another overlooked output of work. “Earlier today for a meeting, I took a student to this incredible Star Wars cantina replica someone built in Second Life. We just sat there with drinks.” 

Even if you’re not a diehard Star Wars fan, does that not sound better than your last Happy Hour over Zoom?

Which way to work?

This year has been clarifying. Not everything needs to be done in person. Not everything need to be done now. And while those who work from home have discovered certain tasks are better accomplished asynchronously, others are better done in a collaborative moment. 

But wouldn’t virtual meetings be better if we were reembodied somewhere outside the view of our crummy garage or poorly lit kitchen? In the distant future, we’re probably not going to complete all of our work as lifelike depictions on a screen, but now’s a great time to consider which events—like creative brainstorms, social gatherings for distributed teams, or one-on-one’s—could be. That’s the beginning of change.

Dr. Boellstorf believes there are a lot of practical reasons for us to adopt virtual settings, complete with avatars, as part of our future routines. To state the obvious, they provide a space to gather that’s protected from the spread of virus. They also come with a fractionally lower (though not non-existent) carbon footprint than people driving in cars to the same place—an ask that is much more difficult for those who are visually impaired. But virtual spaces are also a unique solution to a problem that will only get more complicated in the coming years: Where exactly is work?

Companies that made the WFH transition are beginning to consider when and how and if they’ll return to a centralized space—that space doesn’t have to be physical to be real. If SecondLife has taught us anything, it’s that you can build a virtual environment with presence. And it can be more inclusive for everyone, including the millions who have recently relocated or global teammates who never quite felt apart of the whole outside occasional trips to HQ. 

These spaces could also be more durable. Migrating your operation into a shared virtual space with some type of avatar wouldn’t just protect it from future disruptive events. It would offer persistence of another kind. As anyone living on Virtual Ability Island could tell you, when you build something in that realm, it remains. 

Just how office layouts enable teams to hang inspiration on walls, leave ideas on a whiteboard, or drop off notes at a colleague’s desk, a virtual space can be molded by a team of individuals anywhere into a shared home. It can function like a community, one that’s imbued with opportunities to connect that are as infinite as the collective’s imagination.

Instead of thank you cards, you could mold some number of pixels into a unique gift that a colleague halfway around the world might discover the next day. Imagine unwrapping an adorable alien that coos “Thanks from Sydney!” over your morning coffee. Wouldn’t that feel kinda cool, surprising, and intentional? 

Bizarrely, it might feel more human.