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Why (and How) Realistic Avatars Can Be More Effective


The following is a guest post from Craig McAllister of Integrated Virtual Networks (IVN). Craig discusses the effectiveness of realistic (vs. graphical) avatars and introduces us to Silhouette, technology that his company has developed to render realistic avatars within a 3D virtual world. Be sure to check out the video demo (below), as I think this could be a game changer.

Introduction

To many people, today’s avatars represent elaborate animations. Recently, however, much fanfare has been made about new technologies enabling animated avatars to mimic a wide range of users’ facial expressions. If you smile, your avatar smiles with you. If you frown, your avatar frowns. This development allegedly translates into greater realism. But is this realism “real” enough? If the objective is to make an avatar truly “real”, why not have it actually be real?

Animated Avatars

Certainly there exists specific segments of the Virtual world population for whom animated avatars are preferred. These groups might include children under 10; teenaged gamers; and non-gaming adults in virtual worlds like Second life. In each of these examples, customization, fantasy, and/or anonymity take precedence over true realism.

Realistic Avatars

There are, however, a number of possible virtual world environments where users are likely to be interested in seeing avatars that are as realistic as possible.  In fact, wouldn’t a live streaming video avatar of an actual person be a viable alternative to the currently available animations? This technology would allow for real time, face-to-face meetings in virtual worlds. People could actually see each other.

Realistic Avatars for Online Dating

One example of a real need for this technology is in the area of virtual world dating. As Violetta Krawczyk-Wasilewska and Andrew Ross said in their paper entitled “Matchmaking Through Avatars: Social Aspects of Online Dating”, “Once you have experienced the virtual delights of avatar dating in an online venue, taking that last fateful step and going for a real, physical, face-to-face meeting with your avatar date can only be a let-down.”

Talk about a blind date! How could you even be certain of the gender of the animated avatar you were dating, let alone know what that person actually looks like in the real world?

Realistic Avatars for Online Job Interviews

Another good example of the value of realistic avatars would be virtual world job interviews. Recently, at a state government job fair in Second life, an applicant “came to the job fair as a” tiny cat with a red bow tie on.” How can anyone really know for sure whom they are actually talking to? For all you know, you could be interviewing some kid’s Dad!

How about social networking? Imagine virtually attending your 10th high school reunion, and being able to see your fellow classmates face-to-face (how did that cute girl/guy who used to sit next to you turn out?) Instead of experiencing an animated depiction fixing you with a facsimile smile, you could see your classmates actually laughing. The experience using a live streaming video avatar would be totally different, and potentially a lot more satisfying.

Realistic Avatars for Distance Learning

Distance learning and virtual campuses are other areas with enormous potential. Teachers and students could see each others’ actual faces in the virtual world, thereby facilitating a much richer and personally interactive learning experience.

Imagine playing online poker with a table full of animated avatars. There is no way to read your opponents’ “tells” that you would otherwise pick up in a face-to-face situation. Given that the human face is capable of making over 50,000 different individual expressions, real time avatars clearly provide the advantage in such a nuanced environment. Otherwise, everyone will have their avatars set to “poker face”.  So much for nuance.

Lastly, imagine engaging in sensitive and/or high stakes business negotiations with “a tiny cat wearing a red bow tie…” N’uff said.

Introducing Silhouette

Ultimately, the list of situations where it would be preferable to have real time avatars is almost limitless.  So the question becomes, when can we expect to see live video avatars? The answer is… now. A company called Integrated Virtual Networks (IVN) has been developing patented live video avatar software called Silhouette.

With Silhouette, each user in a virtual world is able to see and be seen as a live streaming video avatar at real time frame rates, along with synchronized audio. Silhouette works with a single high-speed web camera to extract a user’s video image from the user’s actual environment, without the need for a monochromatic (e.g. blue or green screen) background. Silhouette could be used for all those virtual world situations where “real” actually needs to be real.

You can see the direction IVN is going with its live video avatar software by looking at its rough in-house “proof of concept” video which was done completely in-world:

As indicated in the beginning of this post, live video avatars will not be for everyone, but once the technology is fully developed, it could bring a needed dose of reality to virtual worlds.

About the Author

Craig McAllister is affiliated with Integrated Virtual Networks (IVN) in Los Angeles, CA.

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