Study: People open to avatars at work

  • Employees willing to interact with a variety of avatars — except for those that are “creepy”
  • Employees prefer to use more formal avatars to represent themselves

According to a new study from Microsoft and the University of Washington, employees are generally open to using avatars for email and instant messaging, with co-workers, and for training — but prefer that these avatars not be too “creepy.”

Study authors Kori Inkpen of Microsoft Research and Mara Sedlins of the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington surveyed more than 1,000 employees of an unnamed “large company.” The paper was dated March 21, 2011.

Respondents were very comfortable with using avatars or interacting with avatars for instant messages, email, with co-workers, and in development training and forums, the paper said. They were slightly less comfortable using avatars when working internationally or with customers, and least comfortable during a job interview.

“Realism in avatars is a delicate issue,” the study authors said. Some realistic avatars were rated positively, but other realistic avatars “were felt to be eerie or creepy,” they wrote. “This is similar to previously published results on the uncanny valley effect.”

Creepy avatars. (Image courtesy Microsoft Research.)

The researchers asked what exactly made some avatars creepier than others. The single biggest reason was hair style, with skin color, facial shape and features, and eyes also having some correlation with creepiness.

“The results from this survey demonstrate that people are open to the idea of using avatars for workplace communication,” the authors said. “However, the choice of avatar can significantly impact people’s comfort.”

According to “uncanny valley” research, there is a point at which cartoon characters get too realistic — like in the Tom Hanks movie “Polar Express.”

At that point, they start reminding people of corpses or zombies.

Uncanny valley. (Image via Wikipedia Commons.)

Prefer more formal avatars for themselves

In general, people are open to interacting with a wide variety of avatars — including those that are casual or cartoonish. As long as they’re not creepy. But when it came to picking the kinds of avatars they would use themselves, people were much more choosy.

“People primarily wanted more formal, realistic avatars,” the authors said.

Non-creepy avatars. (Image courtesy Microsoft Research.)

The avatars that people rated as “appropriate for work” were those that were simultaneously formal, realistic and non-creepy.

The study also compared avatars to Webcam photos. Although the photo avatars had the highest rankings overall, the rankings for the best avatars were similar.

“This suggests that there are avatars that may be possible replacements for a webcam image,” the authors said.

Maria Korolov