Most people deeply involved in Virtual Worlds, from researchers to developers to enthusiastic users, have read Neal Stephenson’s novel “Snow Crash.”
In it, Stephenson coins the term “Metaverse.” He describes it as a perceptually immersive successor to the Internet, populated by avatars interacting with each other in a collaboratively created virtual space.
If you’ve read it, you probably remember the Metaverse with its cool motorcycles, thrilling swordfights between avatars in The Black Sun, and the endless glittering stretch of The Street.
Seductive stuff, yes?
But I bet most of you don’t remember something mentioned in the novel. And I can sum it up in a simple question:
What was the one thing that made the Metaverse in Snow Crash broadly successful?
Even the most ardent fans of the novel seldom seem to remember the answer to this question. Which is funny, because it’s a pretty important question.
And I think it absolutely applies to anyone trying to build the Metaverse in reality.
The answer to this question is described in four paragraphs in Snow Crash. Let’s look at them.
Juanita (an early programmer of the Metaverse) was trying to hide a personal issue from her grandmother. She starts by describing her conversation with her grandmother over dinner:
“I avoided her until we all sat down for dinner. And then she figured out the whole situation in, maybe, ten minutes, just by watching my face across the dinner table. I didn’t say more than ten words. I don’t know how my face conveyed that information, or what kind of internal wiring in my grandmother’s mind enabled her to accomplish ths incredible feat. To condense fact from the vapor of nuance.
I didn’t even really appreciate all of this until about ten years later, as a grad student, trying to build a user interface that would convey a lot of data very quickly. I was coming up with all kinds of elaborate technical fixes like trying to implant electrodes directly into the brain. Then I remembered my grandmother and realized, my God, the human mind can absorb and process an incredible amount of information – if it comes in the right format. The right interface. If you put the right face on it.”
Finally, another character in the story explains the relevance of Juanita’s insight to the early development of the Metaverse:
“And once they got done counting their money, marketing the spinoffs, soaking up the adulation of others in the hacker community, they all came to the realization that what made this place a success was not the collision-avoidance algorithms or the bouncer daemons, or any of that other stuff. It was Juanita’s faces.
Just ask the businessmen in the Nipponese Quadrant. They come here to talk turkey with suits from around the world, and they consider it just as good as face-to-face. They more or less ignore what is being said as a lot gets lost in translation, after all. They pay attention to the facial expressions and body language of the people they are talking to. And that’s how they know what’s going on inside a person’s head – by condensing fact from the vapor of nuance.”
And there you have it. What made the Metaverse in Snow Crash insanely successful was technology that could read Real Life facial expressions and body language. Then the information was instantaneously and realistically reflected on avatars. Where other people could see and understand.
The Metaverse was won through Networked Social Signalling.
“Networked Social Signalling” is the most concise and clear phrase I can think of for this technology. If you can think of a better one, please let me know. Here’s my definition:
Networked Social Signalling: technology that detects and transfers paralinguistic cues (e.g., facial expressions and body language) from human beings to avatars for the purpose of real-time social signal communication and empathy in virtual worlds.
We ignore this lesson at our own peril. As I wrote in a previous blog post, being human is what happens when human minds touch other minds. And as human beings, we need to deeply understand each other in order for those connections to be made. I think most people forget this critical lesson in Snow Crash simply because we tend to undervalue things we do best.
Especially those things that make us most human. Like understanding the flood of emotional data behind a fleeting smile.
In my experience, most programmers and developers of virtual worlds tend to ignore “soft” scientific concepts like empathy, emotions and the squishy human nuances of interpersonal communication. They primarily want to build tools that allow people to create and exchange *things*. They want to enable cool motorcycles and swordfights. Working on something like networked social signalling tends to get swept under the rug. And it doesn’t help when sociologists and the popular press inform us that folks in the tech industry seem to have an unusually high propensity for lacking instinctive empathic skills.
I see hope on the horizon. Some researchers are experimenting with ways to read body language and facial expressions, reflecting these data onto avatars. Anton Bogdanovych at the University of Western Sydney recently posted this great video of a motion capture suit conveying body language and subtle gestures onto an avatar in Second Life. And new systems like Microsoft Kinect show how this sort of thing might be done without having to wear anything at all.
The future success of the Metaverse is full of other challenges. How to create interoperability. How to build intuitive software. How to create a space that is as democratic as possible, not dictated by corporate interests. How to cultivate virtual economies and business opportunities. Numerous developers and innovators continue to hammer away at all of these.
But what we really need is for developers of virtual worlds to deeply understand the importance of networked social signalling, and for them to build this kind of functionality into their virtual worlds from the start. That hasn’t happened. At least, not yet.
Condensing fact from the vapor of nuance is hard. But it’s something our human minds can do almost effortlessly.
The trick is to use the right interface.
And that interface is ourselves.
-John “Pathfinder” Lester
(Back in June I was invited to speak at a Virtual Worlds Research Workshop in Denmark, hosted by the Virtual Worlds Research Project at Roskilde University and Copenhagen Business School. I spoke about this concept of “networked social signalling” and related topics. You can watch a video of my keynote if you’re interested in more.)