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.  

1 comment:

  1. It certainly seems to be an aesthetic thing; much is made of Svetlana Pankratova, 6'5" with 4'4" legs, and various leggy models--Pankratova has the lead in absolute length, but for proportion, apparently Dji Dieng is in the lead with legs comprising 67.6% of her total height. (And funny you should mention superheroes; How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way mentions that superheroes are indeed drawn taller than average in units of heads.)

    There might be something more to it; a January 17th post on the New Scientist web site about a Polish study of leg length preferences mentions in passing that short legs are correlated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

    I agree with you about SL meters. If LL hadn't intended them to correspond to RL meters, they'd have called them something else.


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