MAS 963  ·  Designing Sociable Media  ·  Spring 2007

03.22 Abstract People

In the face to face world, what we see of other people is the visible parts of their body: we see their face (its structure, expression, and gaze direction); we see their basic body shape (height, weight, their ways of moving and gestures); we see how they have chosen to decorate themselves - the clothes, makeup and hairstyle that represent their their taste and circumstances.

In the online world, we can attempt to reproduce this, making avatars that look like people. This has the advantage of familiarity and legibility - we can quickly recognize gender, expressions of happiness and anger, clothes that represent businesswear or sexual availabilty, etc. However, it also requires making some reprsentation of categories such as age, gender, and race; it requires always having some facial expression. Often, these representations, which strongly influence the viewer's impression, are quite unreliable signals.

Here we will examine alternative approaches to representing people.



Zimmer, R.    Abstraction in art with implications for perception
Arnheim, R.    Growth from "Art and Visual Perception" (1954)
Gombrich, E.H.    The Mask and the Face 1972.


  • Read the papers.
  • Using Chat Circles as a basis, design a system where the representations of people are abstracted forms. Starting with the simple colored circles, the forms in your system should change; how and why they change is up to you.

    Think about what are the causes of change - these may be:

    • how the person interacts with others
    • what they say
    • how long they have been in the system
    • what others think about them
    • direct input from the user
    And, you need to sketch what these changes are. They can be ways of growing - of becoming more complex and multilayers. They can be ways of moving, of changing shape and then reverting (as the system does now with the circles that grow to encompass words). They may be synergistic changes in relationship to others nearby.

Please link your work by Wednesday night.