To Play, To Project, To Extend

On and of avatar empathies

by Brian Oakes

published February 10, 2017

Avatar empathy is what makes the internet, interactive media and other forms of reality so visceral and enticing. By avatar empathy, I’m referring to the bond a user feels through the subconscious projection toward a playable character or digital entity. These empathetic projections tap into the emotional capacity already embedded in a user through real-time reaction, interface, the user’s investment, addressing of the user, and a successful use of a viewport.

Viewers express control and make decisions that do not affect their physical bodies but directly affect the imaginary, virtual version of themselves. A user can control the way an avatar moves, the things it interacts with, the way it grows, and what contextualizes the avatar as a whole.

Avatar empathy can be focused around three main elements: camera, interface and the avatar itself. The camera functions as a window into space and an extension of eyes to be displayed on a screen. In some cases, the line between user and camera bleed into one another as the user becomes not just a viewer but an actual witness to that which is viewing.

The interface is the point of juncture between the bodies of the user and the avatar. An interface requires the user’s input, the processing of the input by the system, and the system’s feedback following that processing. Ultimately, an interface should describe, hide, and condition the relation between avatar and user.

The avatar is the final element in creating a space for projection. An avatar is not necessarily an animated sprite with eyes, arms and legs, or an image of a person, but a name that refers to any sort of presence the user may control. Avatars take many forms such as playable video game characters, profiles on social media, accounts on file sharing sites, or student ID numbers. An avatar is a vessel for the projection of a user and the extension of the user’s identity.

The moment a user makes a connection with an avatar is called cruising: the act of living through the avatar. To cruise is to extend past the constraints of the body and attach to an invented identity. With this in mind, I created Desktop Chambers as an embodiment of avatar empathy. They are spaces for projection, connection, intimacy, and cruising. Desktop Chambers pull away from standard methods of wall projection or wall-mounted monitors. Instead of simply displaying imagery or presenting a pre-existing system or computer, the series presents structural enclosures where a viewer can extend and merge with the visual interface. The custom sites linked to each work do not just talk, nor do they simply display text, but rather they address you, the viewer, specifically. They are extensions of the viewers eyes.