Tag Archives: visualization

The Value of Third Person Perspective

The default, third-person perspective in Second Life

As writers we know that third person perspective is a form of storytelling in which the narrator relates all the action in the form of another person, making use of the pronouns “he” and “she” (as in, “She boarded the ship bound for Venice.”).  This produces a very different effect from telling the story using a first person voice (“I will tell you the story of my trip to Venice.”).  Writers often feel more comfortable storytelling from the first person point of view, but that third person perspective actually gives the writer more headroom, more freedom to spin the yarn in unusual ways.

I’ve been thinking more about the third-person perspective, as it relates to virtual worlds. The photo you see above is the typical viewer perspective in virtual worlds, like Open Sim, Second Life, Jibe, Kitely, Wonderland, etc.  It’s as if you are floating just behind your avatar, looking over his or her shoulder.  Seeing what your avatar sees in front of them, but including your avatar in the frame of reference, as a constant reminder of their presence.  You are not them, as you are in a “first person” perspective virtual experience (like first-person shooter games – Call of Duty, Halo, etc). This third person perspective makes it clear that there is another – an avatar, an alternate you.

A recent blog post by Christopher Hutchison (Khosian Fisher in SL) got me thinking more about this.  In his post, Hutchison (who is a computer science lecturer in the UK) talks about the notion of imaginary friends.  That intriguing and mysterious element of childhood, when we manufacture imaginary friends through which we play out the dramas of our young minds.  Psychologists have long pointed to this behavior as normative and healthy – a way for children to work out their fears, anxieties, as well as their joys. He references the work of Marjorie Taylor, professor at University of Oregon and author of the book, Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them.  Taylor’s book explains that these imaginary friends allow children to explore relationships, anticipate the consequences of behavior, and role-play various emotional encounters in life.  Children who have imaginary friends (and it’s more common than not) tend to be less shy and more able to see things from anothers’ perspective.

So it’s not a huge leap (and Chris makes it beautifully) to think of these avatars we create in virtual worlds as adult versions of these “imaginary friends”.  When we interact with others in a virtual setting, we are offered the anonymity and comfort of working out conversations, navigating relationships, and grappling with new ideas.  As if we are rehearsing all of that for real life.  The space may well be virtual but the rehearsal is very real, and the lessons learned from it apply directly.

When I first began exploring virtual worlds about three years ago, I remember being immediately taken with the way that colleagues, more experienced than me, referred to their avatar. It was always in the third person and always in a way that playfully implied how very real that person was to them. For example, a colleague who’s avatar’s name is “Flora” would say to me, over the phone, “Flora will meet you there at 3:00.” She would never say, “I’ll meet you in the virtual world at 3:00″. There is also the endearing cultural phenomenon of using local chat to write (in italic) an action or a thought that the real person attributes to their avatar.  For example:

Spiral:  Hi, Flora!  Good to see you.

Flora:  Hey there.  How are you?

Spiral:  Fine, thanks.  How long have you been here?

Flora:  looks knowingly at her watch

Flora:  Since 3:00, but I had lots to catch up on, so that’s ok.

The italic phrases are always playful.  A sort of thought-bubble – a wink and a nudge.  A comment that, in this case, Flora is making, but letting you in on the secret.  And this habit has always carried the nuance, for me, of the avatar’s puppeteer coming through and showing themselves, reminding us of the third person perspective. I love this cultural artifact of virtual worlds.

Vishnu and his ten avatars

It’s worthwhile to remember the origins of the word “avatar”.  It derives from the Sanskrit word, “avatara”, meaning “descent”, as in a deity descending from heaven to Earth. In English the word has come to mean an incarnation, a representation, a manifestation. The term is often associated with Vishnu and the varying list of avatars in Hindu scripture. It seems to be less about incarnation of a deity (in the Christian sense) and more about manifestations of the divine in human life and the natural world.  It’s interesting to ponder the many ways that these interactions our avatars have (with us, as their puppeteers) manifest themselves in our regular lives…how are they influencing us?

My musings about the power of the third person perspective came to a head this week with this Science Daily article, The Third Person Perspective is Helpful in Meeting Goals.  The article’s authors, psychologists at Cornell University, investigated the impact of referring to and reflecting on events in your past in the third person versus the first person.  In the article they conclude that reflecting in the third person helps give valuable perspective and can actually help accentuate changes made, over similar reflections made in the first person.  To quote one of the investigators, Thomas Gilovich, directly:

“We have found that perspective can influence your interpretation of past events. In a situation in which change is likely, we find that observing yourself as a third person — looking at yourself from an outside observer’s perspective — can help accentuate the changes you’ve made more than using a first-person perspective.”

I can draw a clear line of sight between this observation and the experience we’ve had working with various learners in the virtual world. Take, for instance, working with diabetes patients in the Women in Control project (Co-PIs John Wiehca and Milagros Rosal).  Women in Control (WIC) is an NIH-funded study to measure health behavior changes between two groups – those who participate in a health behaviors intervention in face-to-face sessions conducted in the real world, and those who engage in the same intervention in the virtual world.  I’ve blogged about this work in earlier posts here and here.

As we’ve worked with the patients in this study, I’ve taken particular note of the way they refer to their avatars.  The subjects get quite chummy with their virtual representations, right from the beginning, and they consistently refer to their avatars in the third person. Great concern is expressed over their avatar’s appearance (clothes, shoes, hair, jewelry as well as their size and shape).  They consistently ask where the avatar “goes” after they quit the virtual world and express a desire to put her “in a safe place”.  When they first navigate their avatar around the virtual space they’ll say things like, “Oh, no!!  She went in the water and now she’s all wet!”  or “I can’t get her to do what I want her to do.”  or   “I want to make her fly!”.  They consistently refer to this virtual being they’ve just met in the third person – and that referencing continues throughout the eight-week intervention.  The WIC team is still hard at work on this project, but stay tuned for the results.

Another example is a project with family practice physicians, learning patient communication techniques in a virtual setting.  In this case, the doctors, present as avatars, role play interactions with standardized patients (also avatars).  The third person perspective here, I think, gives them a certain anonymity; a distance, while still being very present, that allows them to take greater risks.  In a profession that demands consistently upheld expertise, it must indeed feel quite risky to be a beginner and make mistakes in front of your peers.  I suspect that the third person perspective of the avatar offers them a safe remove to be a novice and allow for a natural, stumbling learning curve.

In both of these projects, I can see the inherent value in the third person perspective awarded by the virtual world.  A unique affordance, over and above the more obvious advantages of expense, travel, and ease of access. For me, it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “it depends on your perspective.”

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GRC Science Viz: Day Five

Fifth and final day of the GRC Viz conference and my last post of the week.  Today we heard from Doug Clark (Vanderbilt University) and Seth Cooper (University of Washington).

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GRC Science Viz: The Neuroscience of Magic

Are these two photos the same or is there a difference?

On Wednesday, our GRC Science Viz conference had a very special treat – an evening talk given by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, from the Barrow Neurological Institute (in Phoenix, AZ).  Authors of the book Sleights of Mind and many articles in Scientific American, Nature, and Science, they are both Ph.D. neurobiologists and research lab directors at Barrow, where they study various aspects of visual, sensory, and cognitive neuroscience.

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GRC Science Viz: Day Four

Day four of GRC SciViz 2011 brought us the theme “Revealing Unseen Complexity”.  The speakers were Wilmot Li (Adobe Inc.), Randy Sargent (Carnegie Mellon University), and Jayanne English (University of Manitoba). The evening session featured Susan Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik (Barrow Neurological Institute) for a talk on neuroscience, attention and magic.

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GRC Science Viz: Day Three

The third day of the GRC 2011 Science Visualization Conference. The line up today was Ric Lowe, Curtin University; Vickie Williamson, Texas A&M; David Geelan, University of Queensland; Graham Johnson, The Scripps Research Institute; and Larry Gonick, San Francisco.

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GRC Science Viz: Day Two

This morning’s GRC Science and Education Visualization conference started with a session on Virtual Worlds, Games and Simulations.  There were three talks in the session – Cynthia Calongne (Lyr Lobo in SL), Andy Stricker (Spinoza Quinnell in SL), Marianne Riis (Mariis Mills in SL), and Margaret Honey (CEO of NY Hall of Science).

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GRC Science Viz: Opening Day

I just arrived at the Science and Education Visualization Gordon Conference in Smithfield, Rhode Island.  The conference is being held this year at Bryant University, just northwest of Providence.  140 scientists, artists, researchers, museum designers, and graphic designers have gathered here for this five-day, intensive meeting.  All the sciences are represented here – biology, chemistry, physics, math, computer science, cognitive psychology, astronomy, and geology – the emphasis is on interdisciplinary connections, as applied to visualizations.

One wonderful aspect of this interdisciplinary conference is that the speakers stay for the duration – no parachuting in to give their talk and leave. With the agenda structured as it is, to allow for maximum time for discussion, there is plenty of opportunity to extend the conversation and explore the intriguing ideas presented by those speakers.  In addition to that, the program offers a visionary mini grant program (three grants of $6k each, funded by the National Science Foundation).  All attendees have the opportunity to write and submit proposals for these mini grants, which are awarded in September.  What a terrific idea to seed new ideas and foster collaboration.

I will attempt to blog the conference (posting the blogs at the conference’s conclusion), but will not be able to capture all of the speakers.

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Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass at the MFA

Chihuly exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts

Today I visited the new Dale Chihuly exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  It’s a breathtaking exhibit, thoughtfully staged in the basement of the museum’s new wing where the light can be carefully controlled.  For those unfamiliar with Chihuly’s work, he is an artist who works primarily with blown glass.  His breathtaking, large-scale glass sculptures can be found all over the world – in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, in Canada, in just about every state in the U.S., and in the new Palm Hotel in Dubai.  A car accident that left him with vision in only one eye brought him to painting in order to instruct his students and collaborators on glass projects.  Now his drawings, lithographs, and paintings are quite popular as well.

The MFA installation is really breathtaking.  Huge structures, artfully curated for maximum reflection and impact.  My favorite was this wooden boat, overflowing with Chihuly glass baubles, set on a glass surface that reflects back their brilliant colors.  Equally interesting was a room full of glass sculptures inspired by Native American blankets and baskets.  Just how he forms glass into that floppy basket shape, I’ll never know.

Active participants.

But I have to say that the most intriguing part of the exhibit for me was watching the visitors, watching the exhibit.  We went on a Saturday, so the place was packed, and people were snapping photos all around me.  Cameras, iPhones, cell phones, video cams – the rooms reeled with the secondary light source of theri flashes, green viewfinder lighting, and the glow of LED screens.  It was really remarkable.  What’s going on here?  Of course, it might simply be because they could (unlike most art installations, in this one, camera flashes would not hurt the art objects and so photography was permitted).  But I think there’s more to it than that.  I have noticed a marked change in our perception of an art experience.  With these amazing technology tools, always within our reach, and the ease of sharing the products we create, we have morphed from “passive audience” to producer participants.  I would wager that those cell-phone-camera images will not just sit on their owner’s cell phones.  Rather, the visitors who took them will be printing, emailing, geo-locating, uploading, mashing, soda-snapping, twitpic-ing them with all of their friends and families.  And in the process of doing that, they are evaluating, comparing, synthesizing, reporting, and connecting.  “Which was your favorite?”  “How does this compare to the piece you saw in Dallas? ” “Get a load of that blue!!” “Could we try to make something like this?”  Who knows, maybe even a few of them are blogging about their experience – right now.

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Creating Memory Palaces

Image from erinmizrahi.wordpress.com

I just read the most amazing article in the New York Times magazine – Secrets of a Mind Gamer, by Joshua Foer (thanks to my good friend, Louise).  If you haven’t read it – go there now and do it. You’ll thank me later.

If that name sounds familiar to you, Joshua is the younger brother of Jonathan Safran Foer (author of Everything is Illuminated and Extemely Loud and Incredibly Close). What a family.

Joshua Foer is a journalist who began an investigation of so-called “mental athletes” – people who efficiently and expertly memorize great volumes of information quickly – first and last names of dozens of strangers, long lists of random numbers, the precise order of a deck of cards. Apparently there are televised championship tournaments – check out the website for the USA Memory Championship, to be held next month in New York City. By now I’m sure you’re thinking what I was thinking when I started reading the article – who cares?  Who cares about the craft of memorizing long lists of random numbers or decks of playing cards?  Well, I can tell you that it all got a whole lot more interesting when I read Foer’s account of how these memory athletes accomplish their feats.

In true investigative journalist style, Foer decided to try the memorization methods himself and the NYTimes article is the story of his journey (which wound up with him winning the U.S. Championship!).  To put it in a nutshell (his article does a much better job), these memory athletes rely on a centuries old tradition from the ancient Greeks of creating “memory palaces”.  What they do is to construct a building in the imagination and fill it with imagery of what needs to be recalled.  The distinctive objects they place in these imagined rooms are like coat hooks for memories. As you walk through the imaginary edifice and see the distinctive objects (the more distinctive and wild, the better), you recall the material “stored” there. Very cool idea.

This approach to memory is recorded in a Latin book called Rhetorica ad Herennium, written sometime between 86 and 82 B.C.  You can find an outline of the book here and a complete translation of it here. The techniques described in this book were used extensively in the ancient and medieval worlds as a fundamental element of a classical education.  Our Greek and Roman ancestors trained themselves, not to memorize trivia, but to commit foundational texts, ideas, and stories to memory, to become walking indices of everything worthwhile they’d ever read or learned. And they did it by intensively reading (in order to remember) using these visual motifs.

Of course, I can’t help but make a connection between this idea of “memory palaces” and virtual worlds.  Is that, perhaps, one of the underlying reasons why these three-dimensional landscapes are so compelling for us?  Is that why I have such vivid, penetrating, and persistent memories of everything I’ve ever built in a virtual world?  Why I can conjure up clear-as-day mental pictures of the role-playing space I created or the building classroom that Chimera Cosmos and I built over our virtual home on Jokaydia? Relating ideas and concepts to spatial positions, walking around our mind’s eye with our avatars? Is that what we’re doing in there – creating virtual memory palaces?

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Drawing in Order to Learn

A few nights ago, I went to hear a talk given by the author, David Macauley, at the Concord Library. Macauley is the author of the very successful book The Way Things Work, among others.  I didn’t know that he had also written a book called The Way We Work – which is all about human form and function.  In writing that book he worked with biologists and spent hours and hours in a coroner’s lab, dissecting bodies (as he said, “I felt like DaVinci!”).
Anyway, he gave this mind-blowing talk about, well, the way things work…the way he works, the power of drawing, exploring visually, etc.  The talk was part travelogue, part book promotion, part exploration of the way he worked.  He was funny, charming, and just delightful.  He wrapped up his talk by explaining the basically, he draws in order to learn.  That, in order to draw a thing, he must first completely understand it.
Macauley’s approach nicely dovetails with Felice Frankel and her Picturing to Learn project.  Felice has worked with middle school, high school, and college instructors to help them get students to make pictures to explain a concept to someone else.  When students are asked to create a picture in order to explain (as opposed to just represent), t hey must make decisions that clarify their own thining.  As Felice puts it, this process tends to transcend linguistic, age, or educational barriers.
When asked what advice Macauley might have for educators, working with students, who might want to incorporate drawing into their plans, he gave a fabulous answer  – this is clearly something that he’s thought a lot about.  He encouraged teachers to have students draw every day – to make it a regular part of the routine.  His advice was that students should be encouraged to draw all the time (as they study, as they read, as they listen in class) – and draw the same things, over and over, in order to understand them, refining their drawings as they go.  He said that it was important to separate the creation of “artwork” from the process of drawing.  In other words, it doesnn’t matter what the drawing looks like, let go of perfection. Instead, think of your drawings as tools to help you better understand.

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