The headline of the article (“Navis wanted: feds go in search of avatars interested in civil service”) is more science fictiony than the subject matter itself, but The Winnipeg Free Press has an interesting article about a 12-week pilot project where the Canadian government is testing out interacting with citizens through virtual communities.
There are a few precedents for something like this in science fiction. Whether the idea’s time has come remains to be seen. One of the problems with the use of avatars is that you lose the “human” face — the emotional interaction we engage in when we are actually in the presence of another person.
The movie “Avatar” wasn’t using a virtual reality motif but rather an extended reality motif. That is, the avatars were hosting the consciousness of their operators and were physical bodies that could act, react, and emote just like the operators’ bodies. The lack of emotional connection that Internet-based communication struggles with will ultimately force us more toward using Skype-like videophone technologies and less into avatarish virtual communities.
The need to know that the other person in the conversation cares about what you are saying and sees what you are feeling demands something more effective than a cartoon-like avatar.