Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Evolutionary argument for why men are good at identifying cars

Back in the day, the males of the tribe would go out and scout for food. If they could identify animals from far away, they could choose the best meals, and more importantly, know when to avoid predators. Hence, those males who did this best survived best.

Cars are like animals. Their shapes are distinctive, they move in unique ways, and some of them are predators. This is why men are more interested and generally better at identifying cars.

Just to allay some of the sexism denunciations, I'm not saying that identifying cars is a good or bad skill or that women shouldn't do it, I'm simply explaining the general disparity I've noticed between males and females re car identification.

My wife asks why women are better at identifying shoes and clothing. She's so sexist.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Analyzing Avatar: An ancient word, awesome movie, and advancing scientific reality.

The movie Avatar is a sensational piece of entertainment, but it also offers a glimpse into real Communication research that will help us understand the impact of our current and future media landscape.

"Avatar" is 2000+ year old Sanskrit word which, in the religion of Hinduism, referred to the earthly (human) manifestation of a deity. This word entered modern use, referring to a person’s 3D representation on screen, in the 1985 online game Habitat (Castronova, 2002). However, the concept of an avatar as a highly malleable digital self-representation was not popularized until Stephenson's cyberpunk novel Snow Crash in the mid-nineties (Bailenson, Yee, Kim & Tecarro, 2008). Although the
concept has appeared repeatedly in literature, games, and movies since
before the word “avatar” became popular (e.g., Gibson's Neuromancer), the term has since expanded to include a variety of alternate embodied forms, from persistent virtual manifestations (e.g., Wachowskis' The Matrix), to robots (e.g., Rucker's Ware Trilogy), to biological beings (e.g., Morgan's Altered Carbon).

James Cameron's recently-released blockbuster hit, Avatar, follows in the line of this genre, telling the story of a character who transports his mind from one body to another, thereby immersing himself within a new environment. Although this sci-fi tale is wrought with beyond-our-grandkids’-lifetimes technology, there is an accessible reality to the avatars in Avatar. Researchers in the field of Communication have been studying this concept for over a decade, often using such sci-fi tales as a guide to important research questions (Bailenson, Yee, Kim & Tecarro, 2008). They have developed two relevant theoretical concepts, self-presence and physical presence, which can be examined within the context of the movie Avatar.

Self-presence essentially means embodiment in an alternate self, while physical presence essentially means immersion in an alternate environment. Avatar offers layers of self-presence and physical presence within both the story-line and the viewing experience.

The movie itself induces a high level of physical presence. Cameron's innovative 3D technique propels the images off the screen and into your lap (usually without abusing your startle reflex). Why go to Pandora when the flora and fauna come to you?

Further, the digitally-rendered and physically-filmed actors and objects are integrated seamlessly, at least to my untrained eye. Although I have never seen blue humanoids jumping from trees while shooting arrows, these actions are consistent with my visual expectations and thereby induce a feeling of physical presence. This effect is especially impressive on the non-human (Navi) actor's faces, who express emotion naturally without breaching the uncanny valley (note: this probably relates to social presence as well, but I won't get into that here).

Of course, the viewer's experience of physical presence is nothing compared to that of the human characters who transport their human minds into the Navi bodies (avatars). From a distant MRI-like chamber, they experience complete self-presence within this body and physical presence within the surrounding (often hostile) environment.

And the significance of these experiences extends beyond those moments during which they are connected to their avatars. After a few months of spending his daytime hours in his avatar, Jake Sully returns to his human body and narrates, "Everything is backwards now, like out there is real life and in here is the dream... I don't know who I am anymore." His frame of self-reference changes not only because of the technological experiences of self-presence and physical presence, but also because his (plot-driven) emotional experiences within the avatar are more valuable to him than those within his human body.

Going further, he realizes that all life forms on the planet (Pandora) are interconnected. This explains why the Navi can plug into the horses and flying banchees and then control these animals with their minds. This can be considered partial self-presence because the Navi are extending themselves into another body but are also in control of their own body. But it still represents a very high level of self-presence compared to the current video game character that we control with buttons and pointers.

And finally, after death, each living being's memories are reintegrated into the tree of souls. The substance of spirituality experiences a form of metaphysical presence within all life.

Although this last point is a bit of a stretch, all the other examples are clearly connected to the current theories of self-presence and physical presence. The scholars who develop these theories (including me) use current media technologies, such as video games, to examine whether the theories describe how people really use media. We send surveys to everyday players, run experiments in which people use mediated self-representations within virtual environments, and record various types of data, from behavioral metrics (e.g. how people interact with others in a game) to physiological information (e.g., heart rate, brain activity).

One goal for this research is to determine how to develop media that can induce the greatest levels of self-presence and physical presence. Another is to determine what effects these experiences have on users regarding learning, socialization, and health-related outcomes. If Jake Sully had not fully experienced self-presence or physical presence, would he have still been motivated to fight for the Navi against their militaristic oppressors? If a teenager plays an online game that induces a high level of self-presence or physical presence, is she more likely to build closer relationships with the friends she makes in the game? Do self-presence or physical presence improve the amount of math or science that students learn when they play
educational games? Do such experiences during exercise games compel players to exercise more frequently?

These are the types of questions that Communication scholars aim to answer through their research on self-presence, physical presence, and numerous other experiences during interactive media use. Although the movie Avatar is set far in the future, it highlights the importance of these questions in today’s media environments. Over 2000 years since the word “avatar” was coined, the concept has become an important
aspect of our real and virtual lives.

Rabindra (Robby) Ratan is a PhD Candidate at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. As part of his dissertation work, he maintains

Bailenson, J.N., Yee, N., Kim, A., & Tecarro, J (2008, in press).
Sciencepunk: The influence of informed science fiction on virtual
reality research. In, Margret Grebowicz, ed. The Joy of SF: Essays in
Science and Technology Studies. Open Court Publishing

Castronova, E. (2002). On virtual economies. CESifo Working Paper
Series No. 752.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My new webicenter

My sporadic postings on here are rarely on a topic that is consistent with my self-proclaimed media-man-ness. However, today I would like to shout to the world about how happy I am with my new webicenter, i.e., website. I used google sites, and it was sooooo easy compared to teaching myself how to fumble through a wysi(sometimes)wyg editor (been using komposer). Throughout the process, I found myself proclaiming aloud, numerous times, "I f-in love google!!" My wife knows about my google-rocks-the-world attitude, but she still gave me funny looks.

Anyway, my personal site ( and the site dedicated to my dissertation research topic ( no longer look like I converted word docs to html and then pooped on them. Yay!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Are there subatomic particles in my head?

The brain is (much much much)^1000ish faster/more powerful than our current computers. As computing technology advances, the size of the computational units shrink, thus allowing computers to be put into smaller and smaller devices. In order to reach the brain’s speed/computational power at a size that could fit in a human head, a computer would need to conduct computations at a (very very very)^2000ish small unit. Subatomic?

Are human brains like quantum computers?

Really small things - subatomic particles - are integral to the fabric of space/time and may also be to human consciousness. Perhaps this explains why quantum physics seems to match well with various “occult” phenomena - when the brain seems to transcend space/time (e.g., telepathy, out-of-body experiences, etc.).

Alas, we don’t have the measurement tools that would show us how this works. The tools that do exist (I think) are used for physics research to develop an understanding of our universe. They are pointed at space and particle colliders. Hopefully, someone will refine these tools and then point them at brains. This research - a convergence between physics and psychology/neuroscience/communication - may facilitate an understanding of the connection between human consciousness and quantum mechanics, or even an (unseen) connection between humans.

While I would love to contribute a communication psych perspective to such an endeavor, this type of research probably won't happen for a (very very very)^3000ish long time. I guess I should just focus on my dissertation.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dissertation Prospectus Defense

BORING ALERT, BORING ALERT - this posting is BORING, meant mostly to serve as a bookmark for this milestone and a (public) record of my thinking at this time. Only big nerds should read on.

Today I defended my dissertation prospectus and was given the green light to move ahead (though I already have some pilot data that supports my theoretical framework of self-presence). My prospectus outlines my plan to develop and validate the Self-Presence Questionnaire (SPQ). This will involve a survey-based study and a few experiments. My committee was supportive and gave me great guidance. The most important points are as follows:

1. Don't just validate the SPQ and theory, examine the effects of self-presence. I had planned to do this, but they want more emphasis on the latter.

2. Self-presence is not likely to influence cognitive load and learning (I was possibly going to focus on these points), so consider other effects. There are two on the table, health-related behavior and interpersonal relationships. The former is a hot topic - Exergaming - but I have more experience with the latter. Also, my pilot data suggests a relationship between self-presence and social presence, which bodes well for an inquiry into the latter. Maybe I'll try to combine these and look at social exergaming!

3. Most importantly, I need to articulate why I care about self-presence and why it matters. I need to show my passion for developing an understanding of how people are extended into their virtual self-representations. Is it because I think the concept of the modern cyborg is cool? I do ruv technology. Is it because I think that this phenomenon is integral to our relationships with technology and thus can be utilized to guide the development of better tools? Sounds good to me. Can self-presence be used to promote world peace and unity? Possibly, but it's a stretch. So is this blog posting.

End boring transmission.

If you made it this far and would like to become unbored, you can watch this short film called Validation. I promise it has nothing to do with statistics.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Finalist for favorite TA

The Annenberg student body recent voted for favorite prof, TA and staffer. I was a finalist! I guess all the bribery paid off.

Here's the announcement:

ASCA announces its favorite professor, TA and staff person

The Annenberg Student Communication Association held its annual Favorite Professor, TA and Staff Person Awards Banquet on April 23 in the Annenberg West Wing Lobby. Nearly 300 undergraduate Communication students voted for this year's favorites.

This year's Favorite Professor was Stacy Smith. Ken Sereno and Josh Kun were Favorite Professor Finalists. Favorite TA honors went to Richard Lawrence. Finalists were Robby Ratan and D. Travers Scott. Favorite Staff Person was Maryann Wu. Finalists were Annie Mateen and Sarah Holdren.

El Cholo donated food for the event. The funds ASCA gathered from donations, along with the money that would have paid for the Mexican delicacies from El Cholo, was donated to Troy Camp-- a student run philanthropy that holds a summer camp and mentorship program for underprivileged children in the LA community. The event raised almost $650.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A 1988 take on Mario

I was there, but not aware.

Favorite line:
"Have you heard of Nintendo?"
"No, who is he?"