Wednesday, 15 August 2007

The psychology of voice

I've had one or two chances to experiment with voice recently - for example, at the last two Sloodle meetings (one of which is pictured here) and during a couple of quick sessions in the SL Hacienda.

In general I'd say that there are still a lot of teething troubles, partly to do with the infrastructure and partly to do with us end-users not having our kit set up correctly! As a result, using voice at the moment tends to end up being something of a disappointment. More often than not people switch back to chat after a few minutes of not being able to hear properly - or one ends up with a nasty kind of dual conversation, some in voice, some in chat.

I'm sure it'll get better... and on at least one occasion the sound quality of voice has been very, very good - so this is not intended to be critical of how things are developing. Just stating the obvious really.

But what I want to do in this post is to take a step back from the current practicalities and think about what voice does to the SL experience in more general terms. Of course, I can only write from a personal perspective - YMMV and I'd be interested in people's thoughts on what I say below.

What I want to suggest is that, for me at least, the use of voice vs. chat is fairly heavily wrapped up in the psychology of the SL experience.

In psychological terms something odd happens when one goes into SL. There is a sense in which one becomes one's avatar. Yes, I know that sounds odd but that's what I think is happening. I guess that is part of the reason why people find it so easy to blog as their avatar, send emails as their avatar, and so on.

For me, this is one of the key features of the SL experience.

In passing, it occurs to me that maybe it's the case that those people that don't 'get' SL are those who don't feel comfortable getting caught up in this act of 'becoming their avatar'?

Now, this 'becoming the avatar' is easy to do in chat mode - because chat is very much disembodied from the physical person. In SL it is very easy to become something that one isn't in RL - and chat doesn't prevent that happening because chat carries very little of the visual or aural clues that indicate who the RL person is.

For example, you'd have to know me pretty well to tell that you were really interacting with Andy Powell purely from my style of 'chat' - and even if you did know me that well I reckon I could still hide my identity from you if I really wanted to by changing the way I chatted.

Voice takes that away. Voice makes it much harder to become something that one isn't - to become someone else in-world. I'm not particularly referring to the extreme cases here. A RL man becoming a SL woman for example - though I don't hold anything against those that want to do that kind of thing.

I mean something very mundane. I mean that I can't become Art Fossett so easily if I am speaking with Andy Powell's voice.

Similarly, I can't believe so readily in the SL avatars that I'm interacting with if I'm very obviously listening to a person that I know in the real world.

In previous posts I've noted that some people's reaction to SL is along the lines of "given that we are all just looking at the chat log, why don't we go and simply use IRC instead?" and I've tried, not particularly convincingly, to refute that view by saying that there is something that sets a SL chat session apart from an IRC chat session - that there is some point to having chat sessions in-world.

Unfortunately, for me so far, the addition of voice destroys much of what makes SL so attractive - or at least, that is my initial impression. When I'm in a voice conversation with someone in-world, my first instinct is to think "why aren't I just on the phone to this person - I know exactly who they are" - the SL aspect becomes irrelevant. Worse in fact - it gets in the way.

I really hope this feeling goes away because, now that it's here, I don't see voice disappearing again and I don't see how we're going to avoid a situation in which it becomes the default mode for many/most in-world meetings.

So, for now, I'm waiting to see what happens to the technology and, more importantly, how my own attitude to it changes over time. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I get used to it!

1 comment:

Kathryn Greenhill said...

First time I skyped with someone I was working with on a project in SL, I spoke to him, and then went back into SL and hung out with his av. It was like I was talking to a different friend about a conversation I'd just had with someone else. Dissociative stuff.

Hope our chat hasn't affected the relationship between Emerald and Art.I wonder whether strict role playing sims will spring up - where A/S/L is totally banned? Not sure how I'd feel using voice on Renaisance Island or in Caledon.

And yes, it is Emerald, not Kathryn who joined the AllianceSecondLife google group with her own gmail account.