Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sorting, Scoring, and Avatarism
A Wishfarmer Labs Research Brief

This article is also available as a PDF

What is Sorting and Scoring?

This term isn't being used to refer to any specific systems, but to processes both manual and automatic which attempt to sort individuals into groups, based on some linear measurement. The form that these take depend on the objectives.

Sound obscure? It's really not; Here are some everyday situations in which individuals are scored, and sorted:

  • Being scored on SATs, and sorted into a college

  • Being scored on resume key words, and sorted into an employers hiring system

  • Being 'scored' on age and color, and sorted into a penal sentence category

There's nothing insidious about the process; It's a normal side-effect of trying to manage large numbers of people. While we all acknowledge that everyone is different, “everyone” and “different” work out to a very large number of things to think about. The larger things get, the greater our need to flatten them into something simple enough to take in all at once.

But are these aspects of size and diversity really at odds with our ability to comprehend? After all, we managed to navigate the forest, surrounded by thousands of unique life forms, without tripping over ourselves. Most of the time.

Maybe, instead of looking to logical simplification (and sorting) to help us here, we could look backward to nature instead – and benefit from the robust technology that we call “looking at something”.

How? By re-purposing a familiar method of symbolic personal representation, as a visual and psychological model for thinking about the evaluation (scoring) of individuals?

Spreadsheets, Avatars and Eyeballs

The shift proposed here is similar to that introduced by the first wave of accounting tools in personal computing, such as “Lotus 123”.

These were the first to offer advanced graphing capabilities to the general public. By providing a new way to visualize complex data, they enabled users to think at a higher level, applying their entire analytical engine (brain) to all of the data at once.

This was a huge leap in the Average Joe's ability to comprehend complex data.

Sorting and scoring systems measure (and represent) individuals as columns of numbers and attributes: Years of something, rating of something else. But this doesn't support a high-level evaluation considering the whole.

What we want is to represent individuals in the way best suited to the human animal: Such as looking at on another with our eyeballs.

The concept we need here is the “avatar, and it has been a fixture in computer games since their invention (and even board games before that). It is second nature to modern users as a model for personal representation. The concept is no longer confined to games, and is now a common element in communication programs, social networking systems and virtual spaces.

Users are already familiar with the avatar as persona, and with the concept of various inventory items with unique attributes. For most, these are simply natural.

Some of the common properties of an avatar that lend themselves very well to the purposes of subjective evaluation are:

  • Avatars may have inventories of objects collected from their past

  • Avatars may have points, levels, or other measure of experience

  • Avatars may have personalizations selected by the users they represent

  • Avatars may attach or “wield” items representing specialization, or training

  • Avatars can have special skills and strengths in standardized categories

Most importantly:

Avatars represent a large amount of information at one time, and in a natural visual context.

With the ubiquity of avatars in instant messaging and social networks, the re-application of these concepts toward serious work should no longer be seen as novel. It is simply a user interface upgrade.

Benefits of Avatars in Sorting and Scoring

  • 1. Builds into the system a recognition of the wide diversity of backgrounds, strengths and challenges of individuals.

  • 2. Builds into the system a recognition that no single “asset” (positive or negative) represents the entirety. This premise is communicated to both subjects and consumers through this choice of visualization.

  • 3. Supports quantitative scoring, but works to counter the negative effect of “direct numeric comparison” by encouraging subjective thinking that considers the whole.

  • 4. Immediately recognizable to both subjects and consumers of scoring systems

  • 5. Encourages realistic profiling. A horse-mounted rider in a scientist's lab coat, wielding a wrench in one hand and a broom in the other is visually nonsensical. Concepts such as “inventory load” can also be applied to further re-enforce this message.

  • 6. Upgradeable. New measures can easily be added, either in a monolithic “formal” system or in small “local systems” such as a rehabilitation setting.

  • 7. Universal reach: The concept is readily accessible across cultures and age groups

As Next-Generation Scoring Representations

For users (“subjects” of scoring systems), a very new and natural way of representing themselves and their professional and personal history visually. Functionally, this could take the form of a user interface for “dragging experience” onto a visual representation of themselves.

For consumers of scoring systems (such as employers), this could take the form of visualizations of applicant pools. For example, a crowd (literally) of their available applicant pool, with representations of people conveying their personal and professional attributes “at a glance”.

For educators, this could be an engaging way to invest young people in the development of their educational and professional careers. Applications could allow students to maintain avatars representing both their current and future (desired) selves throughout enrollment. This functions as a very complex sort of “string around the finger”, but on many dimensions at once. An visual representation of an idealized future self is much harder to forget than a list of resolutions for the new semester.

As Personal/Professional Development Tool

As a browser-based system on corporate portal, representing the employee as an avatar, equipped with items representing previous experience and inputs, as well as personal elements and representation of where they are “headed” in their career.

As “target avatars”, idealized profiles of a model employee for a certain position, or of specific improvements for an employee.

As Next-Generation Professional “Curricula Vitae

Targeting the developing convergence of virtual worlds and popular culture, provide tools and standards for representing professional and non-professional recognitions. Example: Red briefcase representing a verified (accredited or otherwise) project management aptitude.

On Implementation: How Might We Get There?

Technologically, we're really not talking about changing the way that mountains of data on individuals is organized, or stored electronically. As previously suggested, this is a change to the way individuals are represented and, as a result, the way they are thought of. All that is needed to support that are a few bits of extra data, and the means to interact with them.

A foundation of basic technologies could speed adoption, so a few of those possibilities are considered here.

Open Source Distributed Asset Type Catalog

Think: Domain Name System (DNS), but for “personal assets”.

A distributed, hierarchical database of attribute types and their visual representations. The “Professional” domain might contain thousands of standard representations for things like jobs, skills, certifications, etc. Obviously there would be a huge Hobbies domain.

Open-Source Avatar Data Format

Think XML, for standardized “avatarism”. Loosely-defined and extensible, a minimal specification for packing up data about avatars would allow developers to easily write client applications, and would promote the growth of large collections of avatars.


Think: Flash API, but for representing avatars.

With a minimal set of routines for displaying the visual elements that comprise an avatar, developers could easily add avatar support to their applications.

Resumes could move quickly into an interim “hybrid” phase, with the addition of simple ActiveX controls (for example) that display an applicant's avatar among the traditional flat resume.

It's Only a Model

This does not change the mechanisms of scoring and sorting, either current or future.

This is a simple “baby step” change, specifically targeting the “front end” of the societal process of sorting and scoring individuals. Its aim is to (slowly) inspire a change in the way people think about the meaning and application of these systems, whatever form they take.

Shameless Plug

Are you interested in pursuing some of these ideas, or related concepts, or something completely different?

Are you looking for a dedicated team combining both inspired creative designers and world-class technologists? Do you need a team like IDEO, combined with a team like Xerox PARC, who is still cool enough to understand the relevance of both?

Do you want to hire someone to turn your drawings of stick figures on napkins into something you can blog about?

Stop nodding your head to a computer . . . and come talk to real people about a virtual world.

The Wishfarmers

Wishes outside. Realities inside.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Next Generation Virtual Television
A Wishfarmer Labs Research Brief

Also available as PDF or HTML

What's a Virtual TV, Anyway?

Currently, virtual television is the television-like experience, presented in (or from) virtual worlds. Sometimes audiences sit "outside" (in their web browsers), and watch events taking place "inside" (somewhere like Second Life). Sometimes they are inside, watching content "from outside", that may have been created traditionally - or virtually.

It sounds interesting . . . and it is!

But it could be so much more.

Assertion: Virtual Television Does Not Yet Leverage Metaverse

Existing incarnations of virtual television do not yet take advantage of the unique capabilities of the metaverse.

This is not due to audience preconceptions: Audiences are eager to be engaged in innovative new ways.

The currently limited interpretations of this medium stem from knee-jerk replication of the traditional broadcast media model. To take things to the “next level,” we have to throw that away, and go all the way back to the real objectives.

What should the objectives of virtual television be? Well, as we see them:

  • To be highly visual, and to be animate

  • To entertain, amuse, interest, inform, engage

  • To be communicable (be a “spreadable” medium)

Barriers to Innovation: Mostly Conceptual

Let's examine the key elements of current incarnations, the false barriers to innovation. Toss these:

  • The “view screen”: The traditional concept of a flat ‘screen’ as viewable area need not be observed in a metaverse. Chuck it, and start over from scratch: What would a ‘view area’ be like, if television had been invented in a metaverse instead?

  • The “speaker”: Similar to the screen, there has always been an ‘audio signal’ alongside the video. In the real world, this is always been linear: You don't tune the video to news, and the audio to heavy metal (well, we do). You also don't complain about the plot twist, and hear someone in Italy respond. Explore these possibilities.

  • One-way model: Arguably the root of all the conceptual obstacles, real-world television is presumed to be primarily passive on behalf of the viewer: Content comes in, and they consume it…period. Old-school media hacks (ex: dial-in vote) don’t even scratch the surface of what could be accomplished in a metaverse. This is the most obvious direction of innovation, but is also the largest frontier. Read Stephenson’s “Diamond Age” (regarding “racting”) for inspiration.

What follows are some very rudimentary techniques, all of which are feasible in one form or another. Some require only changes in the way things are done - most require both that, as well as some clever technology. Some may require audience ‘education’, but more than likely metaverse audiences would not have any problems adjusting.

Road to Innovation

Most of the ideas presented here relate to virtual television being viewed inside a space like Second Life.

It may be hard to believe right now, but this diagram may help you make sense of the following discussion (click to open it in a new window).


Let's go back to the old standby: The ever-mighty pie-in-the-face.

Wouldn’t it be cool to “throw” a pie at the virtual camera, and have it “come out” of the other side? And what if they could throw one back? Funny, huh? Well wait till someone loses an eye, then it won’t be funny anymore.

Now skip past food fights to Real Applications: A public seminar including analysis of some set of statistics. The presenter skips PowerPoint-like slides, and is using a live graphing object that illustrates his topics. But instead of simply showing this, each screen also provides a remotely-controlled copy of the same graphing gadget, for viewers. Now everyone has their own close-up private presentation, live. At the end, a signal is sent from the view screen to destroy the display objects.

There are many creative avenues arising from this which are not even touched on here. Explore them.


Get out your copy of Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age,” and refresh yourself with the concept of “ractives”: Clustered, semi-interactive single-user movies where viewers fill the role of the main character, usually for key story junctions. Yes, “Dragon’s Lair,” in a sense – except that many of the character roles are filled by professional remote actors.

These also come in multi-user versions, where a single live broadcast is still viewed by multiple audiences – but at key moments, there are opportunities for audience interaction.

This is also similar to various sci-fi ideas that have been around since the 1960s, such as the futuristic passage in Ray Bradbury’s “Illustrated Man” in which one character sits in front of a large television watching a serial. At a key point, the actors turn to the camera and say “What do you think we should do, Margaret?”. A light above her television indicates that she is now ‘live’. She stumbles, but eventually speaks in character, and the actors turn away from the 4th wall and continue the scene, changed based on her input.

Worth noting: Bradbury anticipated here the need to ‘dumb it down’ a bit. Not everyone is prepared for live improvisation, but even rare brief interactions greatly improve the “potato” effect of traditional TV.

Immediately after her “scene,” Margaret’s phone is buzzing off the hook, friends all congratulating her on her micro-role.

Taking this to the next level still, consider interaction between viewers.

Here is an example: In today’s episode of “Metasleuth,” a fiendish fiend has stolen the hero's mojo. With investigations mired, the cast turns to the entire audience: “Can you solve the crime for us before the deadline in 1 hour?”

An “investigator’s kit” is delivered to viewers from the view screen, including a small CB radio used to communicate with other viewers of the show. It also includes the necessary clues, such as a lead pipe, or candlestick, or whatever.

While players race to solve the crime, the stars of the show eat lunch, engage in small talk and occasionally look at the 4th wall telling the audience to hurry up because the hero's mojo expires soon.


The astute reader will already have recognized the potential to actually change the “screen,” from capabilities already described. Not only can the video surface itself be changed in real-time, but objects linked to (and nearby) the screen can be controlled by various techniques.

Combined with the ability to rezz objects on demand, this supports dynamic “set dressings” for the view area – deployed and changed, on queue.

For example:

  • 1. During the previously-mentioned presentation covering statistics, the viewer itself can be instructed to provide UI elements such as a button to get a copy of the raw data collected by the presenter.

  • 2. The screen could make use of various kitschy effects such as shaking, bobbing, twisting, which occur in response to control messages from the director.

But that’s just kid's stuff. Let's take it to the next level:

  • 3. During an episode of an in-world serial, the screen rezzes an ocean surface floor, a few low-flying clouds, some seagulls and a tiny desert island to sit on – to go with a the theme of the show, where the protagonist is stranded on a desert island.

  • 4. During a newscast about current RL events, the screen rezzes three walls to form an enclosed “room.” Each of the new walls is a display panel set to show a series of textures – photos or graphics related to today’s news coverage

Of course, all of these ‘scenes’ destroy themselves when they receive the appropriate signal. Keep in mind that any of these objects, rezzed by remote, could be as simple as a floor panel, or as complex as a functional, animated device.

To Be Concluded?

It shouldn't take much to improve on the “real world” version of television, because – let's face it – real world television sucks.

The dimensions in which the “medium” can be expanded, in the metaverse, are dizzying; But we needn't be dizzied.

Just a dash or two of the abundant virtual “spice” should be enough to get started in a big way.

Shameless Plug

Are you interested in pursuing some of these ideas, or related concepts, or something completely different?

Are you looking for a dedicated team combining both inspired creative designers and world-class technologists? Do you need a team like IDEO, combined with a team like Xerox PARC, who is still cool enough to understand the relevance of both?

Do you want to hire someone to turn your drawings of stick figures on napkins into something you can blog about?

Stop nodding your head to a computer . . . and come talk to real people about a virtual world.

The Wishfarmers

Wishes outside. Realities inside.