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Cultural Agents
and Avatars
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to enjoy a personalised tele-guided tour in the real museum environment, and to set
parameters related to viewing quality, optimising these for the device on which they are
working.
Riskwise, the main psychological risk to be highlighted is that immersion in virtual
worlds that is empowered by agents and avatars could lead to a form of isolation in the
real world.
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One obstacle to an increase in avatar technology in the near future is that
the best current implementations are either prohibitively expensive, or are the results
of research projects without sufficient standardisation, portability, or generic exploitability.
The enthusiasm to show that the chosen approach is the right one may sometimes lead
to unrealistic optimism about the perception of agents. While the use of agents or
robotic guides in exhibitions is still rare, visitors may regard them as new toys rather than
superior guides. Because the specifics of avatars differ from project to project, the cost of
developing and using them is still difficult to measure. It is unclear how to charge users
for such services, and prices can vary significantly between developers.
Advantages
Personalisation
Avatar museum guides can be geared towards target audiences, and
the linking of avatars with databases allows a wide range of behaviours and information
to be embodied in a single piece of avatar technology. Skins can help in repurposing
interfaces for individual users and groups of users.
Fun
Avatars are entertaining, and serve to improve the social elements in computer
environments and particularly computer-assisted/computer-based learning. Avatars can be
integrated into Home Media Servers for personalised entertainment.
Conservation and Access
Used in combination with haptic interfaces, avatars may
be used to `examine' delicate and fragile artefacts in a virtual environment, thus leading
to users developing an improved `sense' of the objects.
Disadvantages
Lack of realism
Avatars are not yet convincing. Their novelty leads users to
accord them a high `forgiveness' factor, which as they become less novel will diminish.
In addition to this, studies have shown that ninety per cent of human communication
is non-verbal. Avatars are as yet unable to handle a broad enough range of non-verbal
communication methods (e.g. gesture, eye contact).
Costs
Avatars are expensive to develop and maintain, but, as the Scottish Executive
case study demonstrated, a couple of hundred thousand Euros can produce one which
transforms how we use resources. As skills are developed and the technologies become
more pervasive and simpler, avatars will become cheaper to create.
Charging
Charging for heritage information sources is still in its infancy, and we
do not yet have any good models for charging for avatars.
Hiding behind an image
Using another identity is not always met with
enthusiasm.
130 See the DigiCULT Thematic Issue on Virtual Communities: http://www.digicult.info/pages/Themiss.php
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