How the Avatar Machine Works

HowStuffWorks 2007 This illustration gives you an idea of the view you'd have through the Avatar Machine. See more virtual reality pictures.
HowStuffWorks 2007

Unless you've had an out-of-body expe­rience, you've spent your whole life experiencing everything from the first-person perspective. But what if you could step outside your body temporarily and experience life from a more remote point of view? That's a question that interested a design student named Marc Owens, who invented a device called the Avatar Machine in an attempt to create this kind of experience.

In terms of computer games and virtual environments, an avatar is a digital representation of a real human being. Avatars can be almost anything as long as an actual person controls them. By contrast, digital characters or creatures under the control of a computer are called bots.


If you've ever played a video game like World of Warcraft (WOW), Tomb Raider or Grand Theft Auto, you know about games that use a third-person perspective. In a third-person perspective game, you can see the character you're playing. In most games like this, the standard camera position is above and behind the character, as if you were floating a few feet behind it. Owens designed the Avatar Machine to let users see themselves from this perspective as if they were characters within a virtual environment.

­Owens has said that the MMORPG WOW specifically inspired his invention [source: Régine Debatty]. The device only really requires a harness and helmet, but Owens didn't stop there -- he designed a full costume. He added long spikes on the helmet as well as a red padded section on the upper back of the torso, brown arm bands, black gloves and puffy white pants. The costume resembles the sort of fantasy characters you'd encounter in WOW.

Another inspiration for Owens' invention was his interest in human behavior within gaming environments. He wanted to see if people behaved differently when they observed themselves from a third-person perspective. He tested his invention in several locations, including Hyde Park in London, England. He observed that some people began to move like the characters in WOW -- they'd take large steps and swing their arms with enthusiasm, much to the bemusement of pedestrians passing by.

In this article we'll look at the components Owens used to create the machine as well as some potential practical applications of the device.


Avatar Machine Hardware

This illustration shows how the tripod attaches to the Avatar Machine's harness.
HowStuffWorks 2007

Apart from the costume elements of the invention, which were included to give the Avatar Machine the appearance of a video game character, the device includes:

  • A harness that straps to the user's torso
  • Three two-meter long aluminum rods that attach to the user's harness at the lower back and shoulders, forming a tripod
  • A wide-angle pinhole video camera at the end of the tripod, not to be confused with a simple pinhole camera used in photography
  • A head-mounted display (HMD) contained in a helmet
  • A power supply attached to the harness

Owens' wide-angle pinhole video camera was an excellent choice for this type of application. Not only are pinhole video cameras small -- they are often used in covert surveillance operations because they're hard to spot -- but they also have infinite fixed focus with the proper lens. You can't adjust the focus on a fixed-focus camera, but the camera is designed so that all objects beyond a certain point remain in focus no matter how far away they might be.


The wide-angle lens on the camera is necessary to make sure that the user can see enough of him or herself in the frame. Wide-angle lenses have shorter focal lengths than normal lenses. The focal length is the distance between the lens and the charge-coupled device (CCD), a semiconductor image sensor in the camera that creates video images by interpreting the intensity of light coming through the lens.

Here you can see the difference in focal length and field of view between a normal lens and a wide-angle lens.
HowStuffWorks 2007

The shorter focal length allows Owens to set his camera in a fixed position only three feet behind the user. Without the wide-angle lens, he would have had to make the tripod longer to get the same angle of view, making the Avatar Machine more difficult to use.

Owens' head-mounted display is a helmet that contains a monitor. A user wearing the Avatar Machine sees a video image of his or her back. The helmet doesn't have any integrated tracking systems, which means that if the user turns his or her head, the point of view doesn't change. He or she can only change the point of view by moving forward, backward or turning his or her torso in another direction.

The head-mounted display houses a monitor wired directly to the camera.
HowStuffWorks 2007

While the padded suit isn't necessary for the invention to work, it provides a helpful layer of padding for clumsy users. Owens observed that most people took a few minutes to get used to the Avatar Machine's interface before moving around comfortably in it.

In the next section, we'll look at some possible applications for the Avatar Machine.


Avatar Machine Applications

Owens' costume, reminiscent of the MMORPG "World of Warcraft," might inspire human behavior studies or become the next big thing in high-tech toys.
HowStuffWorks 2007

Owens' fascination regarding the boundaries between virtual and physical environments was instrumental in his design of the Avatar Machine. Much of his research focuses on how people behave differently within a virtual space from how they do in real life. The Avatar Machine blurs the lines between the digital and physical worlds, particularly for people who are familiar with third-person video games.

Sociologists and psychologists might find the Avatar Machine useful when studying human behavior. Owens theorizes that people might feel a diminished sense of social responsibility when wearing the Avatar Machine. He believes users might also feel a sense of invincibility when viewing themselves from a third-person perspective. Through the Avatar Machine, users might experience a sense of disconnection from their physical presence.


Owens thinks that the disconnected feeling users experience could lead to interesting behaviors, many of which are rare in real life but common in the world of video games. Users might become less self-conscious and behave in ways they normally wouldn't in public. This behavior could range from dancing and striking silly poses to acting like a bully toward other people.

Another application for the Avatar Machine is as a form of entertainment. The Avatar Machine has the potential to become a high-tech game or toy. When users tested the Avatar machine, Owens observed that they seemed to enjoy possessing the physical characteristics and traits of a creature much larger and more powerful than themselves. He also saw that many of them had fun observing the reactions of passers-by. It's not hard to imagine the Avatar Machine becoming a curiosity at a high-tech amusement park.

To learn more about the Avatar Machine and related subjects, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Marc Owens Web page
  • Debatty, Régine. "Avatar Machine." We Make Money Not Art.
  • "Aperture." Digicamhelp.
  • Jellig, Jakob. "Digital camera aperture - Eyes to the world."
  • Zolin, Roman. "Wide Angle Lens." Roman Zolin Photography.
  • Blakeslee, Sandra. "Scientists Induce Out-of-Body Sensation." The New York Times. August 23, 2007.