SciTechBlog   « Back to Blog Main
April 21, 2010

Hey, is that avatar lying to me?

Posted: 11:34 AM ET

Consider this scenario, which a researcher at Stanford's Virtual-Human Interaction Lab proposed to me this week:

You're a college student. You have a class in a big lecture hall. And, 90 percent of the time, your professor looks right at you - gazes straight into your eyes.

How would you feel? Engaged? Creeped out? Like you had to pay attention because you weren't just part of the masses anymore?

Then, what if you also knew that the professor wasn't just looking at you -  that, because you're in virtual reality, your avatar professor can look at every student at the same time?

Would you care that this spider-eye capability means your professor's attention towards you isn't truly genuine?

Maybe not, says Kathryn Segovia, lab manager at this futuristic research office.

"If you're in a one-on-one context, it's harder to fade into the crowd," she said.

This scenario underscores what Segovia says is a big debate in virtual-reality research: Is it OK for avatars (digital representations of people) to be deceptive?

Consider some more examples.

On a tour of her cramped lab at Stanford on Monday, Segovia showed me a face-recognition program that turns you into someone else in the digital world.

I'm a white guy, but with a few clicks, a 3-D version of my face became a white woman, and then a black man.

And it's easy to take virtual-reality deception further than gender and race.

Segovia also demoed a feature that put the virtual version of me on auto-pilot, based on my past movements. So, say I was in a virtual meeting and wanted a cup of coffee. The digital me could act as a moving, note-taking placeholder while I went away.

But tying avatars to our real-world movement may make them less deceptive.

Will Steptoe at University College London conducted a study that showed avatars with human-like eye movements - which were tied to a real person's eye movements with eye-tracking technology - were easier to catch in a lie.

Those with stationary, mannequin eyes could lie to people more easily.

(Check out this New Scientist video on the subject).

But there's still plenty of room for deception.

"It's very hard to tell when someone is portraying a genuine version of themselves [in a virtual world]," Segovia said.

The question is: Does that matter? Is it OK, or even powerful, to become another person online? Or is all this mask-wearing bad for us in the long run?

Posted by:
Filed under: avatars • Stanford University • virtual reality

Share this on:
jahman   April 21st, 2010 11:49 am ET

Humans have donned masks to assume different persona for millennia. This new technology and medium does not appreciably change the practice, either in effect or intent.

Jenna   April 21st, 2010 1:04 pm ET

People already do that online – in video games.

Norton Mansfield   April 21st, 2010 1:05 pm ET

Read "Moon Moth", the award winning SF piece by Jack Vance. It's a classic on masking in society, and way ahead of it's time.

Tim   April 21st, 2010 1:08 pm ET

It's one thing you know a mask is a mask. A costume party, a masquerade ball, everyone knows that you are using an alias. When you create an avatar where it is unknown what is "real" and what is not, the line is not as clear.

Thought this was interesting. - DegreeInfo Distance Learning - online degree forum   April 21st, 2010 1:11 pm ET

[...] was interesting. Has anyone ever had an "avatar" for an instructor in an online course? Hey, is that avatar lying to me? – SciTechBlog – Blogs __________________ HARVARD UNIVERSITY, [I]Graduate School of Education; Ed.M-2012[/I] HARVARD [...]

Todd   April 21st, 2010 1:11 pm ET

Why would a professor be using an avatar anyway? Are they teaching classes anymore or just churning out canned webinars? Either way, why would they need something like this. Pointless...

Just Wondering   April 21st, 2010 1:14 pm ET


Daniel D   April 21st, 2010 1:21 pm ET

"That's right Wendy, we all wear masks metaphorically speaking"

second life is not real life   April 21st, 2010 1:26 pm ET

My avatar on is a perfectly gorgeous woman. She likes to ski, to surf, to dive, to dance, to fool around with guns, and generally have fun. She is an honest representation not of me – a perfectly gorgeous man :), but rather more a representation of my projection of a beautiful woman with a great personality. I don't want to create an avatar that is an honest representation of me, because I already live that life, and I don't want to create one that is a sensationalized version of me, because I'm quite happy with me, the unexaggerated version. It is decidedly more fun to socialize as the avatar character I have created. I keep secondlife separate from real life, and frankly, don't have a whole lot of time to be playing around with a second life, but for what little time I spend in is fun 🙂

Franko   April 21st, 2010 1:28 pm ET


You could be a thought terrorist, a threat to income from advertisers
To promote, corporations need to control the Internet

Dr. Bob   April 21st, 2010 1:34 pm ET

I disagree that this is pointless. Yes, faculty still teach classes but those classes may be in "cyberspace." Here at my university, we have an active distance education presence that includes faculty recording classes or conducting live video-conference based classes. This is a distinct advantage for the students since they do not need to move to our city. We have been experimenting with course delivery in Second Life. The avatar issue is one which will become more and more relevant.

Critical   April 21st, 2010 1:50 pm ET

This is an incredibly poorly written article. While I did get the point of what the author was trying to say, he definitely has problems getting to the point–the opening is so poorly done it's silly. Seriously, CNN, is this what passes for journalism these days? Seriously, do you need 8 or 9 rhetorical questions in one article?

dwighthuth   April 21st, 2010 1:55 pm ET

The only reason people hide or cover their personalities is because they are insecure about theirself and who they are so they try to be someone else which furthers their downward spiral into the realm of constantly having to cover their tracks with lies and other self defaming notions. That's capitilism for you, trying to be some else.

Franko   April 21st, 2010 1:56 pm ET

For a man, learning from a female Avatar, with the bumps in the right places, could be a serious distraction. - But, can playing strip poker with her heighten the learning experience ?

Interplexer   April 21st, 2010 1:57 pm ET

why does it matter? thats why u do not make relatioinships based on a pic duh.

Rich   April 21st, 2010 1:58 pm ET

So, the professor COULD be out walking around campus, but students think the professor is staring at them??

RonNoSpam   April 21st, 2010 2:12 pm ET

Given subconscious human biases, technology that masks gender and race may be necessary for real equality to occur. John Lennon and Yoko Ono held a press conference while hidden inside a bag to make the point that people should be more interested in our thoughts than our appearance. And consider the plight of those so hideously disfigured that others cannot bear the sight of them! Anonymity has valid use as well as misuse.

mary   April 21st, 2010 2:17 pm ET

Like playing 21 at the new computerized tables. It is just weird to have a avatar as a dealer.

Val   April 21st, 2010 2:17 pm ET

Then again, is there a side of this for good? Does it matter if your professor is staring at you? If you're getting your education? Does it matter if the person you're gaming with online is male/female/white/black? Wouldn't this be something people could say will help get passed racial issues?

This is also nothing new, I've been gaming online for over a decade, and you never know who's the other name/char until you talk to them on audio programs, or meet them. I never care, if they can keep to their task and we get the job done, while having a few laughs.

Terri   April 21st, 2010 2:20 pm ET

Call me old fashioned, but I like to know who I'm talking to. There's alot of weirdos and predators on the internet. For safety's sake, I prefer to keep it real.

Ballz   April 21st, 2010 2:29 pm ET

I understand why some adults would use online college programs and Im not against it for the working folks who take classes on the side but for the lazy kid who wants to take classes from home I can only say one thing: Get off your lazy butt and do what the rest of us had to do! The kids these days lack socialization skills because they sit indoors playing virtual games and then they dont know what to do around other humans in the classroom.
Well, that ought to get the flamethrowers into gear

skieBlu   April 21st, 2010 2:48 pm ET

It doesn't really matter who wears a mask as long as everyone knows that wearing a mask is part of the accepted rules. It's only when you're led to believe that there is no mask that wearing a mask becomes unethical.

Virtual Dude   April 21st, 2010 3:27 pm ET

Your online (avatar) persona requires different levels of anonymity for different situations. Facebook is very intimate (with your friends) while your purchases or sales at eBay are mostly anonymous. The same is true for Virtual live interaction – corporate collaboration requires that your avatar be a representation of you, while a visit to 2nd Life enables the real user to play a fantasy character.

Some of the newer Avatar Builders allow you to start with a photograph to make a version of yourself, or create a complete fantasy Avatar. There is even one that allows you to transport your avatar(s) that were created once – to many different environments.

We will definitely be testing the limits of digital representation for the foreseeable future – but what fun!

Ray Liotta   April 21st, 2010 3:44 pm ET

I can't help thinking of the song "The Stranger" by Billy Joel when reading the last 2 lines of this article... Deeper concept than it seems...

Professor Avatar « Annie's Blog   April 21st, 2010 7:56 pm ET

[...] recently read an article ("Hey, is that avatar lying to me?" )  about how teachers can create avatars for an online classroom setting that is meant to keep the [...]

Kris Jackson   April 21st, 2010 10:20 pm ET

We're moving into a world in which some people are real, some are not, and some are in between. If you're talking to a person's avatar in Second Life, you're really talking to a person, even though it's not that person ... except when you're not. (I was talking tonight to an AI avatar in there who seemed a lot like a real person.) We're going to have to come up with new definitions, new boundaries, of who and what are real, and what truth and honesty are. Reality itself crumbles before the onslaught of the digital world.

Sency   April 22nd, 2010 2:16 am ET

this is interesting. The avatar movie created a lot of cool scenarios

iFang   April 22nd, 2010 4:07 am ET

Hello? This isn't anything new. MMORPGs, anyone?

John Sonpull   April 22nd, 2010 4:59 am ET

what a thoroughly idiotic article discussing an even more idiotic premise. it's virtual reality. it's all fake. who cares?

Avatrian: Our Blogs   April 22nd, 2010 5:11 am ET

[...] was recently featured on the CNN Website, and it involves "Lying Avatars". Here is the link to that [...]

lIllI   April 22nd, 2010 6:46 am ET

Who cares...unless, while you are staring at your prof on-line he is really....right there behind you! BWAH!

Jason   April 22nd, 2010 8:36 am ET

Here's a thought....instead of WASTING TIME creating a "fictional" characterization of yourself – why not do it through streaming video?

Without accountability – we have nothing....

Masks are only good in theatre...NOT education....

I would NEVER attend a university that spends a portion of its time and resources creating avatars....simply pointless.

Bubba   April 22nd, 2010 8:51 am ET

Norton – I heartily endorse your recommendation; "The Moon Moth" is a great piece of fiction by one of America's greatest writers, John Holbrook Vance.

andrew   April 22nd, 2010 9:56 am ET

Part of being a university student is learning to cope with the temptation of "fading into the crowd". One of the best lessons learnt is not particularly the content of your degree, but your ambitiousness to succeed and be proactive. If you don't continue to give students that choice, then once the hit the real world (and trust me, once you're out of big kid school you're in the real world) you'll be hit with a ton of bricks when you think people are still going to hold your hand through everything.

I admit the technology is cool. But you shouldn't do it just because you CAN. Have we not learnt from Jurassic Park???

JeramieH   April 22nd, 2010 12:35 pm ET

"Call me old fashioned, but I like to know who I'm talking to. There's alot of weirdos and predators on the internet. For safety's sake, I prefer to keep it real."

Because you can always identify a predator by looking at them.

Justin   April 22nd, 2010 1:18 pm ET

Well, this article was wholly pointless. The default setting for any "avatar" is "deceptive." The article makes it sound like deceptive avatars would be a sensational new danger of technology. Really, the technological feat would be making avatars that were *honest*.

Take online video games, for example. I am not really a 400-pound orc with a double-bladed battle ax and a dragon for a pet, nor is the person I am talking to a 6'4" amazon goddess with the body of a supermodel. Honestly, I don't think either party believes that is who they are truly talking to...but yeah I guess you could call it "deception."

Seems to me like you approached the entire subject from a wholly wrong viewpoint. The fact that you can choose and alter the appearance of a digital character is decades-old. The NEW technology (i.e., what would have made an interesting report) is what makes it so our avatars can move and act like we, the user, do.

Radagast   April 22nd, 2010 1:48 pm ET

We all wear "masks" all the time,every day. We present ourselves differently at work, vs. at home, vs. at church, etc. Avatars really just extend this to the online world, with the added dimension of concealing how you really look.

Martin   April 22nd, 2010 2:41 pm ET

Avatar is an avatar. Unless we talk about very specific environment the primary function of avatar is to be someone else. Is that lying if I play knight in online game and in reality I am student?

Of course for on-line teaching or teamwork
there needs to be better rules. Like "No age and gender changes" or "no bots" (ie no artificial animations). But it's up to operator of the virtual environment to decide what rules are the best for given purpose.

Do you think that if someone looks at you tentatively in real life it means he is paying attention? or it's just the result of his good communication skills training 🙂

anyway, as an avatar I mostly prefer to express my intentions manually – look at whoever I want, smile if I want and so on. It's not about lying, it's about consciously displaying persona you want to be at, rather than what you really are. Is that bad? I don't know, many people does it in real life even without knowing what they are doing:)

rbattle1   April 22nd, 2010 5:30 pm ET

Avatars are what there creators make them. It is said that we are created in GOD's image. Yet we are all un-GODLY made that way by a choice to dis-obey. Evenually our Avatars could dis-obey there creators then what?

Kaylan   April 23rd, 2010 6:41 pm ET

Sadly, this already takes place online. People bash, hate, say all sorts of evil things to other people, even make threats because they can hide behind their screen name (at least to a degree or temporarily). As a result, many people hurt other people intentionally and even unintentionally (because we can't always tell what the other person is really saying). The idea that avatars would lie to us is nothing new. If and when this technology advances into the general population, it is a sure bet it will be used for deceptive purposes somewhere, as people (in general) don't change and technology has not "cured" vice at all. In fact it has made it more accessible for many. As to the teacher question. I think most students (including myself) would hate having the teacher staring directly at you. If it was a real person (live vid), it would either creep me out or make me feel like I have to be at military attention. Talk about stress and probably make you concentrate less on the topic you are discussing. If it was an Avatar, I would immediately assume it was not really looking at me but just programmed to do that. 🙂

Bennett Brendal   December 20th, 2020 7:21 pm ET

I am typically to blogging and i truly appreciate your content regularly. The content has really peaks my interest. I am going to bookmark your site and maintain checking achievable details.

vreyro linomit   December 31st, 2020 10:10 am ET

What i do not understood is actually how you are not really much more well-liked than you might be now. You're so intelligent. You realize thus considerably relating to this subject, made me personally consider it from a lot of varied angles. Its like women and men aren't fascinated unless it’s one thing to accomplish with Lady gaga! Your own stuffs outstanding. Always maintain it up!

Charise Tri   January 11th, 2021 1:07 am ET

I think other website proprietors should take this website as an model, very clean and great user genial style and design, as well as the content. You're an expert in this topic!

Jaymie Cortes   January 12th, 2021 1:55 am ET

Hello my family member! I wish to say that this post is amazing, great written and include almost all significant infos. I’d like to peer more posts like this.

Shakia Ridgell   January 21st, 2021 12:04 am ET

Trey Smotherman   January 28th, 2021 10:07 pm ET

vreyrolinomit   February 26th, 2021 4:50 am ET

I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you create this website yourself? Plz reply back as I’m looking to create my own blog and would like to know wheere u got this from. thanks

Tuan Sandhop   March 4th, 2021 9:36 am ET

Bibi Lamastus   March 6th, 2021 2:10 pm ET

Scott Bejerano   March 6th, 2021 2:31 pm ET

Wow! This can be one particular of the most useful blogs We have ever arrive across on this subject. Basically Great. I am also a specialist in this topic therefore I can understand your hard work.   March 22nd, 2021 1:00 pm ET

279552 884360Hello! I just wish to give an enormous thumbs up for the great data you may have appropriate here on this post. I can be coming once more to your weblog for more soon. 173373

sexual cannibalism in spiders   March 31st, 2021 12:58 am ET

204796 402782What might you suggest about your put up that you just made some days in the past? Any positive? 458430

DevOps Tools   April 16th, 2021 12:53 pm ET

342496 572964Extremely usefull blog. i will follow this blog. maintain up the very good function. 801248

Leave Your Comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

subscribe RSS Icon
About this blog

Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

subscribe RSS Icon
Powered by VIP