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On the Threshold of the Avatar Era

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person wearing virtual reality goggles

Virtual reality advances could someday allow a student to become a triangle to learn trigonometry, or a strand of DNA to learn about biology.

Credit: Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Humanity is technologically on the brink of the avatar era, in which it becomes possible for people to virtually embody digital avatars that are not restricted to the humanoid model, writes Microsoft Research partner architect Jaron Lanier. He points to the phenomenon of somatic cognition, in which "the human body is extended by physical objects that map body motion into a theater of thought and strategy not usually available to us."

Lanier notes that mapping values from body poses enables humans to learn to inhabit other kinds of bodies, a phenomenon known as homuncular flexibility. A significant milestone in avatar technology is a method to measure what the human body is doing with a specialized camera, enabling the body to be instantly mapped to an avatar without wearing a special suit.

Lanier says it is likely that avatar tracking will initially be popular as a tool for games and other leisure activities, while further ahead he envisions the technology as an educational instrument. "When we can successfully inhabit a nonhuman avatar, we are exploring not only the brain's deep history, but also the potential far future of all the creatures for which it is preadapted—what might happen in hundreds of millions of years," Lanier says.

From The Wall Street Journal
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