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What is an Avatar in the Metaverse?

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The science behind your 3D alter-ego

Avatars aren’t new in the world of social media, but Facebook’s metaverse adds to it a wholly different dimension. Alongside its rebranding to Meta at Connect 2021, Facebook made a slew of announcements around VR technology, future directions, and research in this space.

Facebook’s metaverse is likely to feature hyper-realistic 3D avatars that use artificial intelligence, sophisticated modelling techniques, and electromyography to render human features and movements accurately in a virtual space.

Note that these avatars are still in the research phase and are likely to debut several years down the line.

Meanwhile, other companies like Microsoft are unveiling their take on user avatars for the metaverse, and the future looks promising.

What Is an Avatar?

Etymologically, the word avatar is derived from the Sanskrit word for “descent,” specifically referring to deities descending to the earth and taking on a humanlike form.

In computing, avatars were popularised in the ‘80s as an on-screen representation of internet users and gamers in particular. The 1985 game called Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar firmly established the need for on-screen representation of users that would bring a degree of verisimilitude.

The idea was that if the user saw themselves accurately presented on-screen, with a first-person view, they would be more conscious of the game’s ethical questions and experience the content in an immersive way.

The same principle now applies to social media as our avatars are – quite literally – who we are in a virtual space or gaming world and the avatar’s actions/decisions are identical to our own. This approach was first presented in the 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson – which, incidentally, was also the first debut of the metaverse concept.

Fast forward three decades and tech companies like Facebook (now Meta) and Microsoft are looking to realise the vision of a rich metaverse, populated by lifelike avatars.

Are Avatars Hyper-Realistic by Definition?

Not necessarily. Avatars are on-screen or virtual manifestations of the user, and technically, they can take on any shape or form as long as they have humanoid features such as moveable limbs, upper and lower torsos, and a face capable of expression.

With these prerequisites, your avatar may look as similar to or as different from your appearance in the real world. VR applications across the industry have their own take on avatars, which are rendered as per the needs of a specific use case.

For example, in a sports VR game, it may be sufficient to have floating heads and bodies without too many details, as long as the movements are rendered with accuracy and without lag. In a collaborative VR set-up for work, computing resources may be diverted to rendering facial expressions and body language for effective communication.

Facebook’s metaverse is likely to feature customisable hyper-realistic avatars that closely resemble your facial and physical features, but support customisation for add-ons like your hair, outfit, and glasses.

Types of Avatars

There are several ways software systems can create avatars for a virtual environment, and these could be 3D or 2D as well.

However, in recent years, 3D avatars have become the dominant form with the rise of virtual reality and hardware and software systems that can replicate real-world movements using sensors. Typically, you can have one of two types:

  • VR avatars – A VR avatar is typically a first-person rendition where the user sees the world from the avatar’s point of view. Other participants of the world can see the upper torso part of the avatar, along with arms, but without the lower limbs. You’ll find this type in most rudimentary VR apps, which do not require complex leg movements or in-world mobility.
  • Full body avatars – In a full-body avatar, sensors are used to replicate and recreate the full body’s movements through a kinematics system. As a result, the user has greater freedom of mobility inside the virtual world and can use all limbs to interact with digital assets. Sophisticated VR games typically use this type, and Facebook’s metaverse will likely choose this route as well.

Why is the Avatar Central to the Metaverse?

Simply put, the metaverse cannot exist without avatars – i.e., manifestations of people using and inhabiting the metaverse’s virtual space. Also, the avatars enable necessary interoperability between the metaverse’s many features.

For example, the user may complete a gaming challenge, earn tokens that are saved in a wallet service, visit a virtual marketplace, and purchase assets to be stored via a vault – and the avatar is the one constant element used across these services.

In the context of the metaverse, avatars play a role similar to that of SSO credentials online (without the security aspect), providing users access to all that the world has to offer.

Recent Moves Towards Metaverse-Ready Avatars

Facebook (now Meta) is currently experimenting with codex avatars that reconstruct human appearance in the virtual world with incredible accuracy. At the backend, live sensor data is driving a neural network, which recreates itself in real-time in the context of the world surrounding it.

Simultaneously, Meta is working on physics-based avatars that are likely to use wearables to capture and utilise data on the human anatomy. Versions of these approaches debuted at Connect 2021, but there’s no consumer-facing launch as yet.

On the other hand, Microsoft is slightly ahead in the avatar game, launching its 3D avatar service in the first week of November. Microsoft Teams users can now create personalised avatars of themselves that will be visible to meeting participants, even when the webcam is switched off.

Importantly, these are stylistic renditions of the human-anatomy and facial structure, with an almost Disneyesque aesthetic – very different from Facebook. Microsoft’s avatars will also be accessible via Mesh, the company’s metaverse offering.

Finally, there are companies like Ready Player Me specialising in building cross-platform avatars for the metaverse. As the metaverse brings together thousands of apps and multiple virtual worlds, the avatar can act as your single point of entry and persistent identity, while you explore, interact, and engage.


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