What if you didn’t go to work, but your avatar did?

What if your work commute was as fast as putting on a headset?

Jeremy Bailenson: If I could succeed in any endeavor as an academic it would be perfecting what I call the virtual handshake. And I don’t mean an actual handshake, I mean that metaphorically. Why do we go to business meetings to be with other people? Because there’s a social connection, this intimacy that when you’re in the same room it feels like you’re there with them and you can do eye contact and you can do subtle posture changes and you can have multiway conversations with sidelong glances, and it feels real. We call that social presence.

VR is not there yet. But if you think about cars: 40,000 people died in the United States last year driving and 1.3 million people worldwide died in car accidents. Think about the productivity lost by sitting in a box for an hour each way to and from work. Think about the fossil fuel that we’re burning while we commute back and forth to work. Think about the road rage. Think about the germs that you get on public transportation. I’m not claiming that we should not see people; I love social connection. What I’m saying is that there’s a subset of travel that if you think about it, why do we drive all the way to work so we can sit at a desk and pound on a computer? Maybe we only need to go two days to work. And for those meetings that are not essential we need to put those in VR.

We cannot support a planet of 11 billion people—which we’ll be at quite soon—with everybody driving and flying everywhere using fossil fuels. It’s just not going to happen. So why don’t we have networked meetings yet? And the answer is because there’s this secret sauce, this social presence that we have face-to-face that we don’t get with videoconference yet. And VR isn’t there yet. So what we need to do is to be able to track more body movements.

The bottleneck is actually not bandwidth because avatar-based communication is cheaper from a bandwidth standpoint than video. The reason is, if you’re doing an avatar-based communication all the 3D models for the avatars are stored locally on each machine. What travels over the network is the tracking data. So locally a camera detects that I smiled and then it sends over network a packet that says smile at 22 percent. And then on the other computer it then draws that smile. So you’re not sending visual information over the network. What you’re sending is very cheap information which is semantic information about movement. The bottleneck is we can’t track movements that accurately. So if you think of the commercial systems right now they track what we call 18 degrees of freedom. Your head and both hands. You can do rotation which has three and X, Y and Z which is obviously three. And so you’ve got 18 points, two hands and a head. In order to have a conversation flow we need to have subtle cheek movements and the twitch of my elbow. Everything I do communicates meaning whether I’m doing it intentionally or not. And the theory that drives this understanding of how humans interact verbally and nonverbally is called interactional synchrony, and psychologists have been studying this for decades, since the 1960s. And the idea is that conversation, it’s a very—it’s an intricate dance and when we’re in a room with people everything is so tightly choreographed. When you nod your head I change my intonation. And when she moves her elbow my knee bobs. And there’s all of these pairwise movements and that’s what makes a conversation feel special face to face. We have to track all the movements of the people in the room in a way that’s sufficient to get that synchrony across.

What if your work commute was as fast as putting on a headset? In the near future, working from home will be revolutionized—although virtual reality is not quite there yet, says Jeremy Bailenson, Founding Director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. In order to make virtual meetings a reality, where your avatar interacts naturally with others in real time, VR developers are chasing one quality: interactional synchrony. "Psychologists have been studying this for decades, since the 1960s, and the idea is that conversation, it’s a very—it’s an intricate dance, and when we’re in a room with people everything is so tightly choreographed. When you nod your head I change my intonation. And when she moves her elbow my knee bobs. And there’s all of these pairwise movements and that’s what makes a conversation feel special face to face," says Bailenson. If VR programmers can capture this quality, it will be the end of commuting for those who want it. No more wasted productivity in bumper-to-bumper traffic, no more subway hotboxes of colds and flus, no more unnecessarily burned fossil fuels. "Maybe we only need to go two days to work. And for those meetings that are not essential, we need to put those in VR." Jeremy Bailenson is the author of Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do.


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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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