The Role of the Avatar in the Metaverse
The avatar-based Metaverse is adding a new dimension to the world of social media. Following Facebook’s big reveal at its Connect 2021 and 2022 events, the company announced a series of technological updates.
Along with its Meta Quest Pro and Project Aria smart glasses, Meta has also recently pledged to advance its avatar development projects. Using its lastest face-tracking tools on the Quest Pro, Meta promises to deliver avatars with greater realism, depth, and expression.
Meta’s metaverse is likely to feature hyper-realistic 3D avatars that use artificial intelligence (AI), sophisticated modelling techniques, and electromyography to render human features and movements accurately in a virtual space.
Meta’s Codec 2.0 avatar and Avatar software development kit (SDK) generate photorealistic avatars for users. Once content turnarounds shorten in the next few years, people can use them for everyday communication.
Alternatively, Meta’s big tech teammate, Microsoft, also launched a huge partnership on cross-compatibility with the former’s Quest product lineup and latter’s Office 365 solutions.
Microsoft is already vying for the Metaverse after its massive $67 billion deal with Activision Blizzard. The major acquisition hopes to build future metaverse infrastructure based on serious gaming technologies. Additional players in the immersive market such as ByteDance’s Pico Interactive will also feature fresh avatar development offerings.
What Is an Avatar?
Etymologically, the word avatar comes from the Sanskrit word for ‘descent,’ referring to deities descending to Earth and taking on human form.
In computing, avatars were popularised in the ‘80s as an on-screen representation of internet users and gamers in particular. The 1985 game Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar firmly established the need for an on-screen representation of users that would bring a degree of realism.
Developers believed users should depict themselves accurately on-screen in first person. Doing so would would deepen immersion as they interacted with characters in the story and gameplay.
The same principle now applies to social media as avatars are, quite literally, visualised representatives of users in virtual and gaming worlds. The avatar’s actions and decisions are identical to their operators.
This approach was first presented in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash, which debuted the metaverse concept.
Fast forward three decades and tech companies like Meta Platforms and Microsoft aim to realise the vision of a rich metaverse, populated by lifelike avatars.
Will the Avatar Metaverse Be Hyper-Realistic?
Avatars are not necessarily hyperrealistic, but are on-screen or virtual depictions of the user. They can have any shape or form, usually with moveable limbs, a torso, and facial expressions.
Avatars may look similar to or as different from a user’s appearance in the real world. VR applications have their own take on avatars, depending on specific use cases.
Aside for simple avatars, Meta Platforms’ metaverse will soon feature bespoke, hyper-realistic avatars that closely resemble facial and physical features. They will also support customisation for wearables like hair, clothing, and potential blockchain-linked non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
Types of Avatars
There are several ways software systems can create avatars for a virtual environment, in both 3D or 2D.
Over the last few years, real-time 3D (RT3D) avatars have become standard for VR solutions, which replicate real-world movements using sensors. There are two main forms of avatars:
- VR avatars – These avatars feature an upper torso and arms, and do not require complex leg movements or in-world mobility. They also feature face-tracking capabilities for collaboration and communicating emotion when needed. These are common on Meta’s Horizon Worlds, Microsoft’s AltspaceVR, Spatial, and other platforms.
- Full-body avatars – VR hardware uses sensors to replicate and recreate the full body’s movements. This provides the user with greater freedom of mobility inside virtual spaces to interact with digital assets. Sophisticated XR studios use this for creating movies, games, combat simulations, concerts, and other media.
Avatars as ‘Keys to the Metaverse?’
Simply put, the Metaverse relies heavily on avatars to represent the psychology and actions of a user in virtual spaces. They can also enable necessary interoperability between the metaverse’s many features.
Estonia’s Ready Player Me has been a leader in this technology with its interoperable, highly-bespoke avatars. People designing their own can port them on dozens of virtual space platforms, leaving one avatar to “rule them all.”
Users can complete gaming challenges on a Metaverse space such as Timberland’s Fortnite or Izumi World, earn tokens, visit virtual marketplaces, and purchase digital assets.
Conversely, Microsoft Teams users can now create personalised avatars to use for meetings participants using Microsoft Mesh technologies.
Essentially, the avatar behaves as a ‘passport’ that people can use to represent their identity. They will soon link to blockchain technologies to save data, become digital wallets, and travel between worlds.