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Do I Need to See You To See You?

With the imminent release of Microsoft XBOX Avatar Kinect, a service that uses the Kinect motion capture device to control an on-screen character that mimics your facial expressions and body movements, I started wondering about how the use of avatar communications differs from traditional video communications.

I have previously concluded that video is not the new voice and mused on the rise of a new Public Collaboration Network to replace the PSTN. But what role does avatar driven communications play in the new communication world; more specifically do I need to see you, via a camera, to really see you?

Microsoft Research has studied the concept of using avatars in workplace communication and published a detailed and academic whitepaper: "Me and My Avatar: Exploring Users' Comfort with Avatars for Workplace Communication". Microsoft conducted a large-scale survey of over 1,000 respondents and drew several conclusions:

* The majority of people are comfortable using an avatar for some workplace interaction, mainly with people they already knew.
* Not surprisingly, few were comfortable using or interacting with an avatar for a job interview.
* The look of an avatar had a big impact on how appropriate it was judged as being for the workplace; hair style and hair color seemed to have a large impact on how "creepy" an avatar was rated.

To the well-researched and statistically correct Microsoft research, I would like to add my unscientific comments and conclusions:

* My daughter has been attending a camp away from home this summer. Seeing her via Skype video each evening makes both my wife and I feel better; in this case, an avatar would not meet my needs or provide the same visual reassurance.
* Unlike video communications, avatar-based communication obviously does not provide the ability to show any real world objects.
* There have already been some experiments using avatars in a business context within Second Life; I am unaware of any significant success stories from these experiments.
* I could see the use of avatars helping to control or better show who is speaking in large groups.
* The main thing I like about videoconferences is that it generally demands the entire attention of the participants; as opposed to audio or web conferences where participants are typically "on mute" half-listening while talking to others, IMing and responding to emails. Avatar-based communication could likewise provide this "focus" benefit, unless there was an option to make your Avatar "appear" engaged while you attend to other items.

Microsoft correctly has indicated that avatars do not require the bandwidth of video. While this is certainly true, I am not yet convinced that avatar communication is an alternative to video conferences. I see avatar communication as yet another communication modality that will be available as the Public Collaboration Network continues to evolve.

Regardless of the perceived pros or cons, as soon as Avatar Kinect is available, I plan to download it and try it out. Please let me know if you are willing to test it out with me.