The Curious Case of Voice Identity

I had deliberately left it quite late in the evening last night before venturing into Second Life (SL) as I wanted some time on my own to refamiliarise myself with the SL environment, the user interface and to ensure I had the latest update from from SL as I knew that there would be a Second Life Treasure Hunt game commencing next week. I also wanted to ensure that I had Team 2’s SL contacts added to my SL contacts list.

I didn’t get too far when I was approached by Dagma Kiranov (a.k.a. Iris Bosa) who had also popped up late into SL. After about 20 minutes typing messages between eachother – that strange typing motion that the avatar undertakes to inform the other user(s) that they are typing has been likened to “stroking the cat”, Iris added her own metaphor by suggesting, given Wray’s costume, that it looked like I was “playing the piano” – Iris asked “can I change my voice?”. This struck me as an odd comment to make until I realised that she was talking about the speech feature within SL that was added several months ago. I plugged in my microphone headset and began to talk to Iris, like one does with Skype and presumably using the same kind of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology that Skype uses. It became clear what her question meant.

In Second Life, and indeed in other virtual worlds, the user invests a lot of time and effort to create their avatar and their “virtual” identity in a way that they want to be seen and perceived by other users within that shared world. One was able to further enhance that identity with the kinds of words and phrases that they used to talk to one another. In my mind’s ear, I can “hear” Wray talking with a deep, rich, urbane voice, not too dissimilar to that of Christopher Lee’s voice. But of course, the experience that the other user gets is not that of Wray sounding like Christopher Lee, they get Wray sounding very Kentish and not terribly deep, rich or urbane – you could almost hear the record scratch at that moment as reality breaks into the virtual world and these whole persona and identity that you have carefully created begins to unravel before your eyes.

Whilst there has been a lot of work in identity in terms of roles, gender, sexuality, demographic variables; I am not so sure whether any has been done on voice as an identity construct in terms of accent, dialect, pitch, etc. The inclusion of the speech feature within SL is a very interesting addition to the software’s capabilities, but I wonder if it will have a detrimental effect on one’s virtual presence and identity?