Walk into that market. Take a look around. Ooh, what are those strange spikey fruits? Walk up to them and give ‘em a sniff. How do they smell? Like feet? Awesome. Ask the lady what they cost. 588 yen? That’s…about $5? Okay, tell her you’ll take three, but only if she gives us a demo on how you’ll peel and eat the thing. Also, I’m adding $15 to your account now from my Visa. You should see the funds right away.
This is the life of armchair adventure proposed by Omnipresenz, a system that pairs an avatar (a real person connected to a streaming HD camera somewhere in the world) with a user (a person sitting at their computer). And so for a few hours a week, rather than watch TV, read a book, or a play a video game, you could guide a real person through the streets of a foreign city to explore parts of the world you don’t know.
Yes, it’s a somewhat wild idea–and fans of Arrested Development may find it familiar–but Omnipresenz is being developed by Daniel González Franco. You might know Franco for his work on the Innovation By Design Award-nominated, gender-bending virtual reality experience, the Machine to be Another, along with Carlos Soro and Angel Muñoz. Omnipresenz is raising funds on Indiegogo now.
Omnipresenz is still in development–and the team has many technical hurdles to overcome to live broadcast HD video across the world–but in studying the interface and emailing Franco, we have a pretty good idea of how it might work.
The user sits at a computer with a live video stream (with enough funds, Omnipresenz will support the Oculus Rift VR headset) which a bunch of control modules overlaid–not unlike Photoshop. One or many users can operate a single avatar. They can type in questions and requests, much like a chatroom. Then on the avatar’s end, these communications are converted to speech into their earpiece, or displayed on a tablet. Additionally, the system has a large section for payments called Nice Actions. Omnipresenz doesn’t take any cut of these funds, and instead, they’re a means for users to fund avatar adventures.
Franco tells us that Omnipresenz could be used for a variety of reasons–as a tool for virtual tourism, as a sort of therapy for agoraphobics or bed bound people to leave their house, or even as a way to rethink the experience of charity. Franco describes scenarios in which an avatar might come across someone in need of medicine or clothing, and the user would become a somewhat anonymous benefactor via that Nice Actions panel to making a difference.
“It is very different if you donate $10 on the street for a staff member of a foundation that you don’t know very well than to give $10 and have the experience broadcast live where you directly receive the gratitude of the person who needs the resources,” Franco explains.
It’s a weighty and complicated idea to unpack, when you imagine something like, could I drive an avatar into a disaster like hurricane Sandy to help? Could I direct an avatar to vaccinate children in Africa? If so, how do those ethics play out? Where exactly are the lines between charitable person and donor-tourist?
And of course, none of those questions begin to tackle the experience for the avatar. Their strange headgear aside (a GoPro mounted on a helmet is even less discreet than Google Glass), the avatar has a lot of social expectation weighing on their shoulders.
While not expected to do anything illegal, the Indiegogo site explains, “you can also control their actions in a crazy and fun way as long as your requests are under the law, and not intended to do damage to the avatar or another.” Franco, however, insists that the avatar experience is its own reward, driving someone who might be introverted to explore the world through a bit of positive peer pressure.
“It has been one of the biggest surprises we’ve had, through tests and experiments we have done in the last two years we have seen people experiment a great sense of freedom while performing the role of avatar because on many occasions while they are performing they do things that they have never done due to shame or some other reason,” Franco writes, “and that in the end, they find the experience–for instance, singing loudly while dancing in the middle of a main square–totally enjoyable and funny.”
It’s not just silly stuff on the line, of course. Avatars could find themselves in the position to communicate and experience deep, private emotions. Case in point, a larger contribution to the campaign will actually score you a “romantic” dinner through the eyes of an avatar. Where things go from there is anyone’s guess.
“You have to keep in mind that this is also an artistic experimentation and the idea is to have a more close personal encounter during a dinner,” Franco writes. “The avatar will be having dinner and a nice chat with one surprise companion, so people will look through the eyes of the avatar and also will be able to suggest actions like asking for dessert, a kiss, to touch hands or sing a beautiful song,” “Ultimately, Omnipresenz is intended to be an exploration on empathy and collective decision making.”