Following is the text of an interview with Jeffrey Ventrella, by Andrea Romeo, in 2009. It is taken from the Italian blog, Brain 2 Brain.




The Future of Media? The Avatar! - Interviewing Jeffrey Ventrella
by Andrea Romeo

Following McLuhan, each medium is an environment which is made by a ground and a figure. Well, if you see a virtual world, it seems that the figure, what stands out in front of our screen, is the avatar. The avatar is the protagonist of virtual worlds, and the strategies of communication by avatar are many. Sometimes the avatar becomes the main figure, other times it puts himself away, disappears from the set becoming part of the ground, and giving so a role to the virtual world user who communicates with the virtual set or with other avatars, avatars and set which now stand out in the screen (becoming figures). Anyway, when we think about virtual worlds always we think about avatars, or rather that character we "wear" and becomes our guide in the exploration of the computer ambient. Like Virgilio for Dante, the avatar in fact is our guide in these places so close to us, but so far away as well, in these parallel dimensions. It is part of that world, is made by the same material, so it knows very well its dimension: the user communicates in the virtual world as well, but only the avatar can really touch it. Of course, only we can decide where to go in virtual worlds, but without our avatar(s) we could not go anywhere. Furthermore, if our avatar cannot go to some place in the virtual world, we cannot either. And, of course, without us our avatar could not move. As a consequence, the relation between avatars and users is a kind of "collaboration", a "pact", and because of this "pact" the avatar is so important for those who decide to go into virtual worlds, and vice-versa.

Until now we talked about a kind of avatar- virgilio, but what it happens when we can create our own avatars using our imagination, like in Second Life, where their role is not only as our guide, but better as our own alter ego, a representation of ourselves? Well, in this case avatars, born by our own fantasy, become part of us, they represent us. Then avatars become our own creature, our digital Frankenstein. Avatar and human being become the same thing, they fuse to each other in a new way, a new medium.

Avatars started few time late the coming of computers. They are the medium which allows us to communicate in virtual worlds, which have their own aesthetic, personality, and intelligence. The diffusion of avatar philosophy creates a new kind of human being, a "homo medium", which is made by the fusion between the user and his avatar. By medium I mean the classical meaning of the word "medium", its etymology, or rather "a person with paranormal powers who is able to communicate with entities which live in other dimensions": the power of this kind of man, the "homo medium", is the technology, while the far away entities are the avatars.

To better understand the role of avatars in our society, I interviewed Jeffrey Ventrella, digital artist and co-creator of an important virtual world (There.com). Ventrella is interested in the avatar communication, and worked for Linden Lab where he developed important aspects of Second Life.

Andrea Romeo: well, the first question I want to ask you is: who is Jeffrey Ventrella? I mean, what are your interests? what is your job, your studies etc.

Jeffrey Ventrella: I am an artist who writes software - because that is the medium of the future. I currently work at the Internet Archive, and am helping to use visual language to make knowledge more accessible to people. I also lecture and write papers on the subject of artificial life. I co-founded the Virtual World company, There.com and then worked at Linden Lab (Second Life) for two years. I invented flexiprims, and avatar puppeteering. I am currently writing a book called "Virtual Body Language".

A.R.: what is the different between an artist who writes software and a software engineer? And what do u mean by"visual language", and what the relation between "visual language" in virtual worlds" and in traditional media like paintings, cinema, etc..?

J.V.: Well, when people say "software engineer", they usually refer to someone who formally studied computer science, and who works on developing software, for various purposes. In my case I started life as an artist (both parents were in the art field and I was in an art program in college).... but when I discovered programming, I immediately saw the potential for software to be a tool for me to develop my visions and animations. And so I embraced software as my new medium. An artist who writes software uses the same problem-solving methods and uses the same parts of the brain as a traditional artist. When I say "visual language" - I refer to the counterpart to text language (or verbal language) which is so important for human communication and expression. When we design a web site, we are using visual language to communicate the intent of the web site, and to indicate to the user how it functions and where to go for different purposes. Visual language is also key for developing virtual worlds. A virtual world is not merely a simulation of the appearance of reality. It is by necessity a cinematic experience. And so cinematic language - one form of visual language - is required to make the virtual world compelling and successful.

A.R.: But there is a new component in this new form of art language which is the interactivity, right? what an artist of virtual World thinks when he knows that someone else is going to interact with his master pieces, and also what is the role of the puppet in this kind of relation between the designer and the "players"?

J.V.: I think you are referring to interactivity - an important aspect of virtual world design (and web site design) that is not present in static artforms. So, yes, there is a component of this artform in which it will come to life in different ways, depending on who uses it and what is done. And you ask about puppets. This is something I have been thinking of a lot lately :) In a virtual world, the avatar can be seen as a puppet. But not a dumb puppet that you stick on your hand or hang from a string. It is a semi-autonomous puppet. It has some intelligence. And we can design avatars to have more autonomy at certain times. This is why I call avatars "semi-autonomous puppets" (www.avatology.com)

A.R.: can you tell me more about the concept of "avatology"? Do you think it might be a new kind of science or what? And, what do you mean for semi-autonomous puppets?

I don't think it's really a science as much as it is an art. I just use the word"avatology" for fun. But there is an interesting phenomenon emerging, as you have pointed out: the avatar and its human driver form a sort of collaborative duo. By the way, I am speaking of third-person cinematic views of avatars specifically as opposed to "classic" virtual reality in which the user wears a head-mounted display, and thereby "becomes" the camera (i.e., there is no cinematic language). The avatar, as a visible entity that the user projects onto is both a separate entity as well as a manifestation of the user. And so when the avatar falls off a cliff, the user feels pain! The art (and science :) of avatology plays out in the space between total avatar autonomy on the one hand, and total user immersion on the other hand.

A.R.: can you tell me more about There and Second Life? Also about the communication by Avatar, and the future of this kind of communication?

J.V.: Yes, well, There.com is a virtual world that I created with Will Harvey - he was the main founder and put the money in at the start. I was the Principal Inventor. We came out before Second Life. And we had a more polished look - more expressive avatars, and more aesthetic environments. But Second Life allowed users to build their own content - and they had a better business model for success. And also (in my opinion) the public was more ready to accept this new thing called a Virtual World). When I joined Linden Lab, my purpose was to create the same level of expressiveness in the avatars as I had done for There.com. But after I arrived, there was little interest in the company for enhancing the avatar - and so I was not able to make a very big impact. So I developed flexiprims, which turned out to be a popular thing in SL.

A.R.: what are "flexiprims"

J.V.: Well, before flexiprims all objects in SL were rigid. They were stiff chunks of geometry. No flowing hair, no rubber hoses, no waving flags, etc. Sure - you could make an animated (kinematic) piece of geometry - but it didn't behave realistically. Flexiprims hang with gravity, get blown with the wind, and drag behind when you run with them. So they use true physics.

A.R.: Why did u think flexprims were so important? I mean, if a Virtual World is "another world", why the need to make it with rules which come from the real world?

J.V.: Ah - I hear the subtext of your question :) I think you are really asking - why should we make a virtual world that imitates the real world? Well, think of the design space and as existing on a continuum. At one end is total realism. Everything looks exactly like the real world, and behaves like the real world. At the other end is total abstraction. Complete chaos (but with infinite potential for expression). Somewhere in between is the best place for making a virtual world. Consider gravity. I heard one artist who was creating a virtual world claim that gravity is not needed. And that virtual world designers should not include that in a simulation because it constrains the participant's experience. But it turns out that for most purposes, people want gravity, because it allows things to be stable and predictable - and they can focus their creativity on other aspects of the world (like making crazy avatars). Crazy - highly individualistic avatars that are floating in space, willy nilly, might be a bit scary :) Another similar situation: When we were developing There.com, Will and I both were against the idea of teleporting. Because we wanted the sense of "place" to be very important. We believed that if people were allowed to teleport, they would ignore the beauty and integrity of the space they are in. But it turns out that people REALLY want to be able to teleport - and this doesn't take away from the appreciation of the "placeness" of the virtual world. People naturally deconstruct the world, and are happy with a mixture of realism and magic.

A.R.: (maybe this comes form the "zapping culture" .. :)) I mean, teleport is like when u use your remote in television and u change channel

J.V.: Ah! Yes. Well, the internet is a spaceless realm - no geography. There is no inherent contiguity - and so it is like the sea of radio and TV channels that people jump in and out of. So people have already been "teleporting" way before virtual worlds were made :)

A.R.: I want to ask you about Avatar Language. Why do u think it is so important for users to have an Avatar? How does it change the communication using an avatar? And what the future? (I mean, do u think in future, with the improving of technology, we will still have fantasy avatar or maybe we will have avatars each like our own body)?

J.V.: When the written word was invented, human expression became disembodied. This is both a minus and a plus. The minus side is that we lost a lot of our body language. The plus side was that Western civilization was born. Now we have a strange new phenomenon: the written word is being used in "conversations". People use IM - real-time verbal (;) language. This was not the original intent of the written word. And so we have to insert our expression - as if we were talking (like smileys) The avatar allows us to put our body back into communication. I believe that in the future, we will have several kinds of avatars for several purposes. Some avatars will be fantasy-role-playing characters. Others will be true representations of our realtime selves, which will help us have remote conversations.

A.R.: (amazing answer this) Thinking about Roland Barthes, one of the most important semiotic Theorist, he says that also our clothes are media. Well, Avatars are Clothes, or are more than Clothes? (or are both?)

J.V.: Yes agree. To the extent that our clothes communicate, avatars are like clothes. In that case, many things are clothes. Like my bookcase. It communicates a lot about me - by the books I read (or want to read :)

A.R.: Virtual Worlds seem will be the future media (as u said in the beginning). What are the strategies of developer of this medium to attract people in their worlds? Do u think there is a connection with videogames (so the ludologist aspect)? And what the future of the older media? Traditional media will disappear? Or maybe they we will be included in virtual worlds? If so, which will be the shape of this new media (the mixing between traditional and the new ones?)

J.V.: Interesting question! Well, I think "virtual world" is really a state of mind, rather than a medium. So, as the medium matures, it will naturally mix in with other traditional mediums. There will always be isolated virtual worlds - self-contained experiences that allow one to become immersed in a special experience. But I think there will also be other kinds of virtual worlds - which have no clearly-defined edges. Like intersections of Twitter, Facebook, Movies, text-messaging, and Skype. (to name a few elements). The new thing that virtual world technology brings... is simulated space and physics and embodiment. And I think this is having an impact on all traditional media - it is changing the conversation. Also, as global warming becomes more of a threat, I think we will need avatars and virtual worlds more - because we have to stop flying so much and burning off petroleum and spewing CO2 into the air. That means we have to communicate remotely. And I hate to think that we lose our bodies in order to save the earth. That's why avatars are important for the future.

A.R.: and what about video-games ... are they important in developing virtual worlds? what they role?

J.V.: Well, some people think that video games are the mother of virtual worlds. Just look at the number of computer game developers working at Linden Lab :)



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The original source of this interview can be found at Brain 2 Brain.