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Should she change the channel, the user will have the option of moving her avatar
there and meeting another group of avatars and agents in new scenery. She decides to
widen her study to include painting in the eighteenth century. She enters a studio where
she meets an artist, his models and his students.The artist first explains the technology
behind a painting. He is dressed according to the time period, but is knowledgeable in
modern painting, as he compares watercolours and oil-colours in the eighteenth century
with contemporary painting materials and techniques.The artist also knows information
about other artists from that time whose paintings are hung in the gallery.The visitor can
examine preparatory work for a painting to gain a greater understanding of the artefact.
The visitor is joined in the virtual environment by someone whom she had met earlier ­
the fiancée of another artist.These experiences could be shared only with friends, in this
case fans of art, or a user may choose to make her avatar visible and capable of interac-
tion with other, previously unknown, visitors. She lives a long way from Moscow, but the
cultural life, both historic and modern, is now just one click away.
A d v a n t a g e s a n d D i s a d v a n t a g e s
There are many benefits to each of the technologies outlined thus far. Agents could
become ideal tour guides when they are well constructed and do not distract the user
too much with their appearance, movements, or speech patterns.When they are intelli-
gent and reflect the visitor's profile, a good level of tour personalisation can be achieved.
Since a full understanding of cultural heritage requires background knowledge of many
disparate areas including art history, history, religion, and politics, there will always be a
need for detailed and accurate explanation and guidance.
A core benefit of avatar technology is in the improvement of social communication
in virtual environments. An active presence in the digital world could be interpreted as
a form of escapism from the real world, and critics of this technology claim that it can
lead to real world isolation.We are reminded of the degree to which the virtual world
has become embroiled and intermixed with the real.The world preferred by a specific
person becomes an issue of personal choice, and many can inhabit numerous worlds at
different times, some real and some virtual.
Avatars and agents are generally considered to be entertaining and amusing. On account
of the insufficient levels of realism possible and the limited (some may say `prescribed')
communication patterns, some users might end up disliking the idea of talking to a
computer-generated agent. As novelties they may be amusing, but as agents become
commonplace, like automated telephone systems, the loss of human contact may come
to be considered more and more of an irritation.
Avatar technology cuts real communication costs. It is cheaper than videoconferencing
and can offer a sense of anonymity, when this is a desirable factor. At the same time,
avatars can provide an enhanced sense of presence, which could lead to the fulfilment of
certain psychological needs.
The uses of avatars in museums are still new and have a long way to go, but their
potential is staggering. Robotic avatars in particular may have a number of advantages
over the current technologies used in museums and galleries. In particular, visitors will be able
Cultural Agents
and Avatars
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