Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Beauty:  the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all  
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

From John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

“Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else...You don’t have to be rigid about original detail. The imagination is capable of detail transplants, but using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believability and truthfulness. It creates a good solid foundation from which you can build...Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious. ‘Okay. I’m at a wedding. The bride has on blue. The groom is wearing a red carnation. They are serving chopped liver on doilies.’ Relax, enjoy the wedding, and be present with an open heart. You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redheaded mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled, and smelling her perfume mixed with perspiration.” 
From Natalie Goldberg, Writing down the Bones

In a thought-provoking response to one of my own posts, Burgundy Mirajkar pointed out that beauty is, by definition, difficult to attain, and that human traits are often highly prized for their rarity.  She closed with this statement:

"Perhaps what we'll begin to see is the development of technologically unattainable beauty standards in-world."

In Second Life, perfect human beauty is easy to attain---or to obtain.  For about the cost of a latte and a scone at Starbucks, you can buy shape, hair and skin to make your avatar a 'perfect ten' by human standards.  With a little persistence and a good eye, you can pick them up for free.  As a result, perfect tens are a dime a dozen.  They are as blandly pretty as Barbie dolls, with as little variation.  

The similarity, avatar to avatar, is so great that if I were to turn off the names hovering over other avatars' heads, I wouldn't be able to tell one from the other, friends from strangers.  What's truly eye-catching is a unique avatar---someone recognizable from across a crowded room, who stands out by virtue of the vivid, loving detail put into their creation.  Someone who is unlike anyone else.  

I have a few favorites.  Rosie Barthelmess is one.  Jopsy Pendragon, with his elf ears and his bare feet, is another one.  I had always thought of these avatars as interesting, rather than beautiful.  Digital representations of fascinating minds, rather than virtual flesh. I had pegged the Barbie avs as the beautiful people, but now I'm not so sure.  Now I wonder if the Barbies are just ordinary and the true beauties of the world are the iconic avatars, as distinct and recognizable as logos. 

Will we see the development of technologically unattainable beauty standards?  Maybe.  

As of right now, differences in technology do affect the way that avatars look, but only to the avatar with the technology.  A high-powered graphics card profoundly affects the way that you see the virtual world and the way that your avatar looks in it, but only for you.  Your appearance on someone else's screen is limited by their graphics processing, and there is nothing you can do to change that.  Perhaps in the future, we will have other ways to gain an appearance advantage technologically---real-time motion-capture animation overrides, anyone? 

Until then, it seems that the best way to stand out in the crowd is to stand out in the crowd.  Perhaps, in a world where you can easily have any feature you can imagine, beauty lies in the rarity of your choices. 

The most expensive and highly prized pieces of avatar customization in Second Life are rare---limited edition items, like the Anastasia suit, from the Zullay Designs Couture collection, shown above.  The craftsmanship on the outfit is exquisite, with beautiful prim and texture detailing, but it only rates the L$35,000 ($131.58 US) price tag because it is absolutely unique.  Only one will be sold. 

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Deviation from the Physical

What makes a beautiful body?  

Over and over again, in studies too numerous to quote (Google it, sometime), it has been shown that men prefer women with curves.  They like breasts and butts and waists that nip inward--all signs of optimum fertility.  Really, it's all about getting your genes to the next generation. 

Even in comic books, that last bastion of adolescent male fantasy, the women are not skinny.  Where men have the opportunity to create female bodies, unbounded by physical reality, they cluster them tightly in the low end of the 'normal' BMI range, right around the BMI of 19 that I mentioned in my last post.  (Citation!)

Women, contrary to all the research, think men prefer supermodel shaped bodies, flat-hipped and skinny.  These bodies are absolutely perfect for one thing:  displaying clothing.  A very thin,  straight body allows fabric to drape smoothly from the shoulders over the hips without any uneven terrain to irritate the designer and mess up the line.  

But it is the uneven terrain that makes a body beautiful when it isn't covered up at all, and the models in men's magazines have significantly higher BMIs than the models in women's magazines.  And I would guess that the difference has to do with what the models are wearing--or not wearing--in each variety of magazine.  

Our preferences seem to be circumstantial.  What is most attractive in one situation is unattractive in another.  Here in the real world, a seven foot tall woman with a BMI of fourteen would be freakishly skinny and unattractive.  She would almost certainly be infertile.  But as an avatar, she wouldn't stand out at all.  Since her height and BMI are about average, we must look at other features to determine whether she is attractive.  Our eye has been re-normed.    

Over on Dusan Writer's blog, there is an exploration of cutting-edge architecture in Second Life.  Dusan quotes Keystone Bouchard:  

“In an environment where avatars are free to create anything they can imagine, the vast majority of the architectural fabric created is still largely driven by very literal parallels to the physical world. This happens for good reason, as we have learned to visually organize the world around us, real or virtual, based on familiar cues and patterns. A roof may not need to protect us from the elements in virtual space, but it organizes a space. Even though you can fly, a ramp is still a strong wayfinding mechanism.”

Second Life houses very rarely have bathrooms and kitchens, and a disproportionate number of them have hot tubs.  Not very many of the beds are designed for sleeping, either.  Lots of businesses don't have roofs or doors, and ceilings are often ten meters high.  

All of this stuff makes sense in this particular virtual context, and none of it would work in the real world.  For virtual buildings, our eye has re-normed.  

So here's my question:  In a generation, when we begin to see in SL the children who started hanging out in Club Penguin when they were two, how will all of this change?  Will we have a generation of avatars who don't need the literal parallels to the physical world? Will we have, as it were, Virtual Natives?

And what will they look like?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Avatar Body Shape

Melissa Yeuxdoux responded to my Primitar post.  Because she brought up several points and used lovely, wonderful data, I'm going to respond directly.  

First of all, thanks for mentioning Marvel Comics, Melissa.  That primitar looks like he stepped straight out of the pages of a comic book, with all of the attendant distortion. Little head...check.  Long legs...check.  Massive, bulging chest and shoulder muscles...check.  He's kind of a cool dude, but his shape is just wrong.  It's too bad he turned out to be the template. 

Now Svetlana Pankratova is an interesting case.  She is 6'7", by the way, according to a video interview with her.  The popular media seems to have been shrinking her by increments (Is that reflective of our discomfort with really tall women? Is it an attempt to diminish her in some small way?).

Her legs are almost 4'4" long, but that is measured from the top of the hip bone, at about the level of the belly button, rather than from the crotch.  That measurement is almost 66% of her total height, while the average woman has a rough hipbone-to-floor proportion of 50% and mine is about 60% (37" from hipbone to floor, 62" tall). 

Incidentally, Svetlana's proportions are consistent with Marfan Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder which causes extreme height and very long legs.  Note Svetlana's long flat hips, narrow sloping shoulders, and extremely thin ankles.  Compare them with this photo of a mother and her two sons.  All three have Marfan Syndrome.  

Although the only numbers I found for Dji Dieng appear to come from a publicist, those numbers indicate that she has legs that are 4'1/2" long (same measurement, floor to top of hip bone) on a body that is about 5'11 1/2" tall.  She is 67.6% leg.  

Keep in mind that all of the live (not photoshoot photoshopped) pictures I have found of her show that she is around 8 heads tall, perhaps a little more.  With 48 1/2" for her legs and 8 1/2" for her head, that leaves 14 1/2" for the space from her chin to her hip bone. Let's just say that I am extremely skeptical of those measurements.

The library avatars average 63.7% of their height from the floor to the top of the hip bone (I have an Excel sheet if anybody really wants it...I love data). 

While there is an inverse correlation between leg length and heart disease and diabetes, we're looking at a difference from short to long legs of just a few inches. There is nothing to indicate that longer and longer legs confer greater and greater benefit.  In fact, Marfan Syndrome, which I mentioned above, is associated with high risk of heart problems--aortal tearing, for instance. 

My point is that avatars in Second Life are not shaped like idealized humans:  they are shaped like disordered humans, varying so much from the human template that it requires explanation. And real world aesthetics isn't it.  

A study done in the UK on women's body shape and optimal attractiveness showed that body mass index had the greatest correlation with perceived attractiveness.  Waist to hip ratio showed a very slight correlation.  No other factors, including the ratio of leg length to torso length, showed any correlation.   Study Excerpt

Indicentally, the magic numbers were a BMI of about 19 and a waist to hip ratio of .75 to 1. Numbers lower or higher than that were considered less attractive.  

Avatars tend to have apparent BMIs much lower than 19 and the women tend to have waist to hip ratios much more extreme than .75 to 1. A female avatar with the numbers for optimal human attractiveness will look plump and thick-waisted in comparison to those around her.  

What seems to me to have occurred is a kind of digital speciation.  A new set of aesthetic standards has been put in place for avatars, which diverges remarkably from human standards.  Although it is fascinating that this can occur, my concern is that, as the use of Second Life for business and education becomes more widespread, it will become yet another source of distorted body images that young women, in particular, will measure themselves against.  Thoughts?  

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


This is a little off my usual sort of thing, but I want to make sure you all know that ETD hair, which is all on sale until the day after Christmas for a miniscule thirty L$, has modify permissions.  Most of it can be happily scaled down to a size much smaller than I need without editing individual prims. Thank you, Elika!  

Monday, December 1, 2008

Preventing Microcephaly

"The historical reason the 'middle of the sliders' avatar is taller than the average human is because our last non-modifiable avatar back in pre-alpha just happened to be that tall (a guy we called Primitar).  Then we changed how the avatars looked without changing the physical representation of the avatar on the server, and their default size was scaled to match the collision model." 

~Andrew Linden, posting on official Second Life forums, December 01, 2003. 

I think I touched a nerve.  

There has been an incredible response to my first blog post.  People have a lot to say about how their avatars look. Thanks to everyone who offered an opinion.  I really appreciate it. 

There seem to be three basic philosophies of height in Second Life.  

The first is absolute height, which measures an avatar against a prim.  These avatars tend to be noticeably shorter than the average, and are not subject to the height inflation we see in other groups.  A meter does not change size.  

Then there is relative height, which measures an avatar against his or her friends.  These heights are all over the place, but tend to be anywhere from extremely tall to unbelievably tall.  This is where you see the greatest amount of height inflation.  People keep tapping the sliders to the right to maintain what they believe is their correct relative height so other people tap the sliders to the right, creating kind of an avatar arms race.  

The third philosophy says that a meter is not really a meter but is actually .66 meters.  Or .8 meters.  Or some other number, based on the ratio of the height of the average human to the height of the average avatar.  The problem is that the height of the average avatar has changed over time and was never really pinned down to start with. 

But height is a really big deal. 

Having a human scale avatar really does amount to living in a world full of giants—and sometimes angry giants, at that.  A few larger sized avatars expressed concern that the smaller ones were going to act as size police and prevent them from being what they wanted to be, although no larger avatar related any incident in which this actually occurred whereas it was extremely common for smaller avatars to be harassed. 

Roughly two thirds of the avatars who are smaller than the usual report being accused of age play, being banned from clubs and other adult areas because of their size, being auto-ejected from sims with height-checker scripts, or pressured and criticized by friends and strangers alike to conform to the size of those around them.  Even those who had never been overtly attacked experienced day to day difficulties---no mod prim attachments can make clothing or hair impossible to fit, furniture and buildings are not even scaled to a size that would fit the (very tall) default avatars, but to avatars who are taller than that by a full foot.   

So how did this happen?  People gave all sorts of reasons that the average avatar might be very tall:  there’s the large default avatar size, the large ‘middle of the sliders’ size,  the high camera angle making an avatar look small on the screen, designers making big buildings and big clothing, and social acceptance ("...all of my friends are that tall...").  One commenter on a Russian blog referencing mine suggested that it was a body fad, like tiny corseted waists or foot binding, that was unmitigated by physical reality. 

On rare occasions (see philosophies, above), I have heard the theory that a meter in Second Life is not actually a meter but some other unit of measurement---the figure quoted is usually .66 meters.  I don't buy this reasoning, I'm afraid.  If that were true, the human-shaped library avatars, which average 6'4", would actually be just a hair over 4'2"--the size of an eight year old child, in the real world.  

There’s also the Builder’s Tape Measure theory, which has a formula to translate an (arbitrarily designated) average avatar height of 6’11” to an average human height of 5’8”.  This would make the library avatars average 5’2” which, although a very good height to be, doesn’t seem very likely either. 

It strikes me that, contrary to popular opinion, a meter in Second Life really is intended to be a meter and all those default avatars really are intended to be grownups, albeit somewhat disproportionate ones.  

You see, I took a close look at those library avatars, and they are not really that much too big, even though they are hugely tall compared to the average human being.  The problem seems to be that they, like many avatars in Second Life, are disproportionate in a particular way.  

Most people are between seven and eight heads tall.  Someone who is eight heads tall looks long and willowy.  Someone who is seven heads tall looks rounder and stockier.  That’s natural human variation.  I am eight and one quarter heads tall—in both worlds.  That puts me off the scale.  I am unreasonably lanky. 

When I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, I went to the hospital for an ultrasound.  The technician took a measurement of my daughter’s skull and a measurement of her thigh bone. He compared the two measurements, and then his face went pale.  He quickly wrote up a referral for me to travel to a different hospital, two hours away, to have another ultrasound done.  On the paper it said, “Possible microcephaly.”  Microcephaly?  That’s when someone’s brain doesn’t grow properly and their skull stays very small.  The offensive term for someone like that is “pinhead”.

Well, my daughter is fine, but she’s on the very edge of the bell curve, just like me—lanky.  Our proportions are extremely rare, outside of serious genetic disorders, but we are downright stubby in comparison to the library avatars, who average 8.8 heads and 76.4 inches tall.  

The length from crotch to floor on a normal person is a little less than the length from top of head to crotch.  Almost all of the library avatars have legs that are longer than their torsos—some by a little, and some by a whole great lot.  And most of them would get sent to the hospital for a second ultrasound.  Their heads are far too small for their leg lengths. 

So I tweaked some numbers, just to see.  I took leg length down to 7/8 of torso length, just took the leg sliders to the left without making any other changes.   That’s how I got the corrected height and corrected number of heads high columns. 

Look what happened!  Those library avatars went from enormous pinheads to elegant-looking human figures, slightly taller than average.  In other words, they became idealized human forms. 

So our problem seems to be leg length inflation, rather than simple height inflation.  It looks as though avatars are human scale, except for their legs. 

Which got me thinking about shape and proportion.  How are you built?  Are you leggy and skinny?  Are you short and plump?  How many heads tall are you?  What is the impression you are trying to give with your avatar shape? 

Why are our legs so long, anyway?  Is it an aesthetic thing?  Or a leftover from the super-hero-like pre-alpha Primitar?  I’d love to hear from you.  

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Human Scale Emergency!!!

Hello, everyone.  I'm still churning through all the comments from the first blog post and I've drawn a couple of preliminary conclusions and come up with a couple more questions.  I'll post them as soon as they have settled.  In the meantime, however, we have an emergency to deal with.  

Over and over again, realistically scaled avatars told me that they had hardly any options for clothing or buildings or furniture or pose balls because everything was out of scale for them.  They said they were looking everywhere for a place to spend their money and just couldn't find what they wanted.

What?  An untapped market?  In the middle of a global recession?  We just can't let this continue. I have decided to make a resource page for realistically scaled avatars.  If you are a content creator who makes things to more realistic proportions, label your creations "Human Scale" and drop me a notecard with details about what you have and where to buy it.  I'll get links posted on my resource page. 

Monday, November 24, 2008

That's Me

That's me.  I'm the little one.
No, I'm not a child avatar.  I'm not a tiny or a fairy or any kind of furry.  I'm five feet two inches tall, fine boned and angular, with big hands and feet and long arms and legs---just like I am in Real Life.  As a matter of fact, I look a whole lot like I do in Real Life, measurement for measurement.  

But in Real Life, I just don't look that small.  

In Real Life, I'm a little shorter than average, and quite a bit smaller boned.  I'm leggy and lanky.  I can't wear petite sizes because my inseam is too long.  Women's gloves are too short in the fingers for me most of the time.  But here I am, in a crowd of avatars, looking positively Lilliputian.  

I can guess how it happens that most newbies are big.  The default avatars are very tall, and if you set the sliders to fifty (seems like average, right?) a female avatar is six feet even and a male avatar is six foot four.  It's like the guy who set the scale for prims and the guy who made the avatar mesh and sliders weren't talking to each other, and the whole thing came together a little off kilter. 

Combine that starting point with a tendency to value height as a symbol of power or confidence, and you get seven foot women and eight foot men.  Since there is no yardstick to counteract it, people just don't know, as newbies, how tall they are.  I understand how it happens.  

But why, after you've been in world for a while and you know how tall you are, do you choose to remain that big?  Why does it stick?  Why is nearly every avatar in the whole second world almost twice my height?  

I want input.  I want feedback.  Are you bigger or smaller than the willowy masses?  What influenced your decision?  How did you decide to be the height that you are?