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I was watching some machinima earlier today (ones Hamlet Au had mentioned on New World Notes) and was reminded of a post by Joshooah Lovenkraft on the Second Lifers Livejournal group from earlier in the week in which he quotes a summary of Masahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley” hypothesis, including this bit:

“if the entity is ‘almost human’, then the non-human characteristics will be the ones that stand out, leading to a feeling of “strangeness” in the human viewer.”

That’s exactly the situation I think we have with our avatars, one of the reasons Second Life is a bit of a hard sell, and why it’s possible to do things like this satire of a Second Life romance by Botgirl Questi but difficult or impossible to do a serious romantic machinima unless it’s strictly abstract and contemplative, like one of the ones Hamlet liked, Halden Beaumont’s lovely “The Labyrinth”.

In other words, the fact that our movements in Second Life are a little jerky and our expressions more than a little limited and the subtleties of physical communication are nearly nonexistent in some ways makes our Second Life existence a little strange, a little hard to empathize with, and a bit of a turn-off. Those of us who love the chance to be in that world get past that, of course, but I suspect that this uncanniness, this sense of everything feeling slightly fake and stilted, is part of the reason that virtual worlds haven’t been adopted wholeheartedly by people in general, and are mainly the province of a large and clever group of misfits who can accommodate it, one way or another. (That would be you and me and all our friends.)

But things are getting better, and I have an example for you. It is a lowly example, literal and figurative, but it’s worth looking at, because if you look at these pictures, you might begin to feel on a gut level that virtual worlds will eventually come to feel natural and graceful, not just because our civilization is adjusting to them, but because of subtle improvements in how things can be created.

I would like to show you two pairs of shoes.

Wilfully Strappy Mary Janes from 2006. And no, this is not a fashion post.

The first pair were my first decent shoes in Second Life. I bought them two years ago at Dazzle, a wonderful store that vanished long ago as its proprietrix, Ginny Talamasca, moved on to other things (from which I believe she has since moved on again). I loved these shoes. In fact, I loved them so much that I kept wearing them until recently, blissfully unaware that they were looking more and more antiquated. They looked like Apple II graphics compared to MacBook graphics, if that means anything to you. They had become clunky and graceless, as though they had been made out of children’s toy blocks. The reason this had happened was that, in addition to the refinements of technique shoe crafters had made over time, sculpties came into existence and had rapidly taken over the shoe world, yielding shoes like this, a style called Solace from Maitreya, which has been around for a while but which I only got around to buying an hour ago.

Solace shoes from Maitreya

The newer shoes fit my feet much better. Their shapes are more natural, more attractive, more graceful. Sculpties enabled better shoe design, and by gum, Maitreya grabbed the torch and ran with it (is that a mixed metaphor? somehow it sounds wrong). These shoes feel a little more real, a little more attractive, a little more grounding. In fact, the only thing wrong with them is that their quality of workswomanship emphasizes how unrealistic my feet look.

So in the same way that more realistic water made me suddenly feel at home playing in the virtual ocean, these shoes make me suddenly feel a little more like a real person in that application window, a little less like a cardboard cutout of a person. And with tiny steps like this, virtual worlds will gradually feel more and more real, capitalizing on technology and artistry, until the uncanniness goes away – at which point, I suspect, humanity will begin to bring virtuality into their lives en masse. What that will do to our race and our civilization is going to be a very big, very interesting surprise.

^^^\ Kate /^^^