Donath notes that even seemingly simple human behaviors are accompanied by collections of body language and expressions that can reinforce or undercut the messages we intend to send. For instance, she suggests that we signal our intention to engage someone in conversation by a complex suite of gestures, mostly nonverbal: “You carry out this goal not only by walking across the room but also by making eye contact, smiling, raising your brows, adjusting your clothes—a complex set of communicative behaviors that indicate your intention to start a conversation, allow you to gauge his willingness to do so, and show your level of determination.”
Right now, even the most sophisticated avatars accomplish only a small subset of these behavioral collections. But that’s beginning to change, at least within the research community. Although putting all of the components of these behaviors under user control is viewed as too complex, Donath cites work in which entire suites of behavior could be controlled by a single command. For example, an avatar commanded to end a conversation can nod its head, wave, and break eye contact. Users of such systems found them natural and more engaging, and they found their conversation partners to be more expressive.
Although these sorts of advances may make for a more appealing virtual experience, Donath suggests that they have some disturbing implications for issues of trust and credibility when future avatars are used for communication. She notes that we interpret many behavioral collections in light of what they tell us about the person who is doing the talking. For example, we tend to view someone who doesn’t make eye contact as more likely to be lying, providing uncertain information, or simply uninterested in talking with us. A well-programmed avatar can be commanded to engage in behaviors that simulate honesty, regardless of whether the speaker is trustworthy.