Earlier in the year, we spoke with VirtuOZ’s Mark Gaydos about the company's customer-service avatars. What was most striking about the conversation was the high amount of customer engagement with the avatars, something that spo

ke to the underlying psychology of humans interacting with human-skinned technology.

At the time there weren’t any metrics to confirm this psychological attachment, but now there are findings that explain the psychological mechanisms behind it. Researchers at Concordia University, led by Dr. H. Onur Bodur, studied Second Life to find out what factors led to people’s identification with avatars.

“Members of the community use particular avatar traits or visual cues, such as attractiveness, gender, stylish hair, or expression (“babyfaceness” is associated with cooperation), to form impressions or opinions about the human behind the avatar,” the researchers write.

“Well-known psychological principles such as Social Response Theory (SRT) and anthropomorphism come into play at this stage of discovery and discernment,” the researchers write. “[The] study finds that these impressions, based solely on fairly limited or superficial traits of the avatar, may accurately match the true personality of the real person behind the avatar.”

It is predicted that 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies will have an avatar or presence in a virtual community by 2011. France’s fnac, one of the first major companies to use an avatar as a customer-service agent, had to deal with a consumer protest when they removed the avatar – Clara – from the site, a protest that would not have occurred if the help tool had not been anthropomorphized.

By Mark Alvarez