Voice: Making or breaking the experience

Ever wonder how the introduction of voice into a virtual world would affect user immersion? I’m wondering in particular what it would do for dirty talk during 3D avatar sex. Would people still dish out the same meaningless drivel that they seem to often do via text while getting laid in Second Life? Or worse yet, would the stale and canned conveyances grow even more lame, devolving further into two- and three-word phrases uttered during the heat of cyberpassion? Then again, maybe it would actually improve. Who knows?

At any rate, I read an interesting post today at 3pointD.com about how voice is to be integrated into the interface of the massively multiplayer sci-fi game EVE Online. What I thought was particularly interesting was how the company that created Second Life apparently viewed bringing voice into its own virtual space.

“Part of what’s stopped Linden Lab from bringing in voice support, though, according to the Lindens I’ve spoken to, is that it would break the immersion of the world for many residents,” 3pointD.com’s Mark Wallace writes.

This would more than likely be true in a lot of cases. For example, I think it’s safe to say there are many users in Second Life whose real-life voices wouldn’t exactly be a perfect fit for the various personae they take on in their synthetic surroundings. I mean, could you envision a fire-breathing dragon speaking like a 19-year-old girl? Or a voluptuous female avatar conversing in the timbre of Barry White?

Granted, there are already users in Second Life who use voice to augment their in-world experience at their own discretion via outside communications tools such as Skype. But like I explained, that can shatter immersion for a good many users.

That’s why I am intrigued when I read the forward-looking musings of staffers from Vivox, the company behind the voice program being integrated into EVE Online. In the past, I’ve read quotes from Vivox execs explaining how they plan to ultimately develop “voice fonts,” so that users can customize their voice inflections to better suit their virtual selves. What I wonder is if one’s avatar would be able to lip-synch along with their in-world speech. I also wonder what the audio quality would be like, as well as how the feature would be actuated from a logistics standpoint. For instance, would one be able to wear a headset that could be used in lieu of a computer mic?

Regardless, I’d be very interested in using a voice font feature should it ever be incorporated into the Second Life interface. At this point, I can’t even venture to guess if I’d like it or not unless I actually experience it. I have no idea how it would affect my own immersion. Perhaps after using it, I would continue to enjoy typing text instead. Then again, texting can be pretty annoying at times during avatar sex. I mean, your hands are already busy trying to execute the act on the screen, which can involve using both the mouse and the keyboard. And your hands may be busy doing other things, too. Ya know?

On the flip side, perhaps the less we engage with the keyboard and mouse, the less likely we are to connect with the on-screen depictions. It’s been my experience, through reading and observing, that the less a user is tactilely or physically involved with the interface, the more likely he or she is to lose interest. Which also brings up the question, how far should developers of games and virtual worlds go in simplifying the 3D virtual sex interface, or just the virtual environment interface in general? I guess perhaps the really competent ones might already have a sense of the answer to that question. Or not. Dunno.


  1. Comment by csven on May 14, 2006 2:28 pm

    Just so you’re aware, there are already voice-altering programs available. The one about which I blogged a couple of months ago had a free version. It also had samples on the website to demo the conversion. It wasn’t especially good, but I expect quality will improve quickly*. Beyond gender conversion (which will doubtlessly be a big deal), I think there will be, for example, plenty of high-pitched males wanting to sound more like how they perceive their virtual version would sound.

    The more interesting issue will probably be, as you point out, how does this affect immersion for the average user (not the hardcore gamers). This is related to my interest in cell-shaded effects such as those in the PCD Lounge micro-world. CG people are aware of the problem of “too realistic” characters. There’s that point where viewers start looking for clues as to whether the character is real or not. That takes away from the immersion. The realism is distracting.

    This problem was heavily discussed when “The Polar Express” was released and a fair number of people claimed to be creeped out by the CG characters. In contrast, a movie like “Toy Story” doesn’t even come close to looking real but still draws viewers in. Voice may have that kind of adverse impact and, *it may actually be necessary to reduce the quality to help preserve the immersion. Time will tell.

  2. Comment by Noche on May 15, 2006 12:58 am

    Thanks for mentioning the voice-altering program. I’ll have to check the reBang archives for that post, as I am very interested to read it.

    Like you, I too am interested in how delicate immersion can be, and what factors affect user perception in this regard. I suppose much of this aspect of synthetic existence involves a certain understanding of human psychology in the context of virtual worlds. Any good books out there that you know of that address stuff like this? I’d like to explore this area in more depth.

    I think I may have been referring to something different than you were when I was referring to audio quality. Or maybe not…

    What I meant was that I think the voice should be well-produced, and not sound distorted and tinny. Also, I don’t think users’ real voices would go very far in helping to maintain immersion, because like you said, it would just be too real. Also, I think many people just don’t have very appealing voices (from a fantasy-based perspective.) I think in a virtual world, voices probably should be closer to some ideal. No? For example, some desirable female voices might have the tone of a Mae West or a Marilyn Monroe. Or does that sound too Orwellian and Twilight Zonish? I guess it does in a way. But I think what draws a lot of people into a virtual world is a longing for their ideal, which oftentimes mirrors the collective ideal, culturally speaking - or in this instance, perhaps pop culturally speaking.

  3. Comment by Bonnie on May 15, 2006 8:25 am

    I think it’s important not to underestimate the sex appeal of the written word. Some people enjoy actual, out-loud banter, but one of the things that makes cybersex in it’s currently popular forms so attractive is its texture, it’s writerly aesthetic. I know I for one would be much less interested in engaging in cybersex if it (or the pressures and expectations of the society I was taking part in) required a spoken element. Writing simultaneously creates a visual artwork and allows us to feel removed from ourselves. Speaking lacks both. Of course, it’s a matter of preference, but it seems to me that one of the things that appeals to people about virtual life is how it contrasts with the real.

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