Microsoft has applied for a patent on technology that could lead to a whole new generation of user avatars, characterized by a disturbing realism that could lead to unprecedented levels of honesty and disappointment on the internet.
Online avatars can take many forms but for the 90 percent of us who aren't particularly attractive, the one thing they typically are not is realistic. Most of us have no particular desire to advertise the fact that our hairlines end somewhere directly north of our ears or that we can hide our belt buckles behind our gut flaps. Up until now it hasn't been a problem; people can just plaster a photo of whichever rippling studmeister catches their fancy onto their online account and nobody ever has to know what a greasy lard-ass they are in real life. But Microsoft appears to be interested in changing all that, based on a potentially disturbing patent application filed last week.
It appears that Microsoft wants to build an avatar system that reflects us not as we want to be seen, but as we actually are. "Increasingly, people interact with services, information, or other people through a virtual environment," the company said in the application. "Often, these interactions are in a virtual space accessible by a large number of other people via a virtual persona. Examples of such virtual personas are avatars that present a sensory representation (i.e., graphical, auditory) of a particular person, often tailored to selected or predetermined characteristics."
The application notes that while the disconnect between reality and avatar-based fantasy has many advantages in "social interaction environments," there are some drawbacks as well. "Physical cues" that would exist in a face-to-face meeting aren't present, making it difficult to ascertain mood, which can sometimes hinder conversation. Furthermore, some people come to prefer the lives and super-abilities of their avatars to the point that they neglect their real lives, with resulting "negative health ramifications."
Microsoft's plan to address those drawbacks is a simple one: Turn avatars into the same sedentary fat-asses as the users themselves. Using information gleaned from a number of sources ranging from health records to data taken directly from the user via connected sensors, a person's avatar would reflect his or her real physical characteristics, good and bad, for the whole world to see.
"An undesirable body weight could be reflected in an overweight or underweight appearance for the avatar. An unhealthy condition could be reflected in an unhealthy pallor, posture, etc.," the application says. "The performance parameters for the avatar are adjusted to reflect health, such as speed, strength, agility, visual acuity, etc... These measures could be replicated on a health indicator gadget, such as a SPOT watch, so that the individual or others can gauge a health level. For example, a dedicated gamer could exercise for a period of time until his health indicator gadget shows a sufficiently high health/health credit in order to allow reentering the avatar environment."
My initial reaction to this news was one of shock and horror. After I thought about it for awhile, I noticed my shock and horror wasn't going away. Presenting ourselves to the world as we really are? That's crazy talk! I also can't help but think that this sounds more than a little like the Wii Vitality Sensor; is it possible that Microsoft has taken a bigger chug of the Nintendo Kool-Aid than we thought?