Why (and How) Realistic Avatars Can Be More Effective

April 23, 2012

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.


The Second Life for Virtual Worlds: Vertical Solutions

September 11, 2011

Introduction

In 2007, Gartner predicted that “by the end of 2011, 80 percent of active Internet users (and Fortune 500 enterprises) will have a ‘second life’, but not necessarily in Second Life.”

As we approach the end of 2011, it’s safe to say that we’re far short of the 80 percent mark, as far as 3D avatars (in virtual worlds) go. It does seem clear, however, that the 80 percent figure is quite accurate if you consider the “second life” to be social networks. In fact, I then think the prediction turns out to be perfect.

Virtual Worlds: Where We’re Headed

3D virtual worlds (Second Life being the most prominent) never caught on in a mass market, the way that Facebook and Twitter have. I think social networks will see continued growth in adoption and usage, while the use of general-purpose, “open use” 3D virtual worlds continues to diminish.

I think “worlds” are dead. The future is all about self-contained solutions. And the future is now.

FountainBlue Virtual Worlds Panel

On September 30, 2011, I’ll be moderating the following panel for this FountainBlue event:

FountainBlue’s Third Annual Virtual Worlds Annual Conference

Topic: Virtual Worlds: Where We Were, Where We’re Going, What Does It Mean to YOU?

Date & time: Friday, September 30, from 8:30 until 10:30 a.m.

Location: EMC, 2831 Mission College Blvd., Santa Clara, in their San Francisco Conference Room on the Third Floor

Cost: $22 members, $32 partners, $42 general

Facilitator Dennis Shiao, Director of Product Marketing, INXPO
Panelist Andrea Leggett, Senior Product Marketing Manager, EMC
Presenting Entrepreneur Parvati Dev, President, Innovation in Learning
Presenting Entrepreneur Raj Raheja, Founder and CEO, Heartwood Studios

For more information and to register, visit http://www.svvirtualworlds.com.

My Premise: It’s All About Vertical Solutions

I’ll plan to float my premise to our panel and invite them to share their thoughts. The premise, of course, is that the “worlds” in “virtual worlds” is dead and the path to success (and profit) is to build focused solutions that directly solve business problems. Consumer-based virtual worlds told us that you can’t be all things to all people.

Consider the vertical approach that two panelists’ companies are taking:

Innovation in Learning: Solutions (Healthcare)

  1. CliniSpace™ – Virtual Hospitals and Clinics
  2. DynaPatients™ – Virtual Patients

Heartwoord Studios: Solutions (Military)

  1. Virtual Training
  2. Handheld and Mobile Apps
  3. Immersive Marketing
  4. Augmented Reality
  5. Simulation Ready Modeling

Conclusion

Do you have thoughts to share on this topic? Feel free to join us in Santa Clara, CA on September 30th. The event is meant for “Entrepreneurs, Intrapreneurs and Investors only. No service providers please.” In addition, I invite you to use the comments section below to share your thoughts on my premise.

 

 


Introduction to HuzuTech: A Social Media Software Company

January 17, 2011

Note: The following posting was submitted by Graeme Harvey, Managing Director, HuzuTech

Graeme Harvey is MD of HuzuTech, a social media software company. He’s been involved with HuzuTech since 2009, and before that he started up a successful digital publishing division within Harpercollins publishers, concentrating on online, desktop and mobile application development. There, he developed a digital business that underpinned the Collins Language division – the first of its kind within Harpercollins UK (it included the first e-commerce, e-book and mobile app presence).

Introduction

HuzuTech is a British social and virtual technology company. We’ve just launched our white label virtual world platform, HuzuVirtual, which lets brands, publishers and film or TV production houses create their own branded virtual worlds and online environments – at a fraction of the cost of building one from scratch.

We also white label our own social networking platform, HuzuSocial, which lets brands offer secure social networking facilities (including within a virtual world, through full integration with HuzuVirtual) and the ability to link to Facebook.

Branded communities

We announced the launch of HuzuVirtual at AdTech New York recently, and the response was fantastic. We know that virtual worlds are a huge growth area for publishers and media companies, but what was really interesting was the appetite for brands to create their own communities.

As online communities become integral to brands’ marketing campaigns, there is a reluctance to hand over control of customer data and relationships to a third party like Facebook, and requirements for more sophisticated or bespoke technology to manage those relationships effectively.

Customisation

As a result, our technology is completely customisable, with functionality that includes things like the creation of different virtual environments, rooms or ‘levels’ to the world; avatar creation; virtual (or real) goods shop; fully moderated chat functionality; custom-branded avatars; and special events such as online meetings, concerts, and VIP areas. It’s cloud-based, because it is designed to be able to cope with rapid growth, when the community grows exponentially.

Monetisation

There’s also the thorny issue of monetisation. More and more, brands are seeking to monetise their online environments. Sales of branded goods are expected to grow by more than 100 per cent over the next three years. We’ve included virtual shopping features in HuzuVirtual, and the feedback we’ve had so far has been that brands definitely want to control an environment where customers are paying for their goods.

Demonstrating the Technology

We’ve developed a site to show how the technology works, including some really great features like routing technology (which means an avatar will always follow a path – rather than walking ‘through’ obstacles), and ‘motion’ sensors (see how the car alarms going off when the avatar walks past them) here: http://paperworld.huzutech.com/.

Note: this isn’t a virtual world in itself, but shows the kind of technology we can use. We’re constantly tinkering with it to make it better, and we’re always interested to know what other people think of it.

The first full virtual world built on our platform will be out in around June 2011, and is for Scholastic’s Horrible Histories™ – it’s a great one to be working on and shows how the publishing industry is one of the first to adopt these new technologies to market books.

If you’re interested to know more, visit our website: www.huzutech.com.


Re-Thinking 3D Virtual Worlds Development

November 6, 2010

Introduction

Scratch is a programming language developed by Mitchel Resnick’s research group at MIT Media Lab.  Scratch “makes it easy to create your own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art — and share your creations on the web.”  Scratch was designed for youngsters, to encourage them to build applications and games without having to learn the ins and outs of conventional programming languages.

Scratch programmers use their mouse to snap together blocks to form “stacks”.  The stacks embed actions.  For instance, some blocks allow players to control characters via keystrokes.  Programmers sequence their blocks to create animations and games.  Let’s consider how the concepts behind Scratch could be applied to 3D virtual worlds.

Virtual World Evolution

Previously, I wrote about the evolution of virtual worlds from self-expression to marketing to monetization.  With the concepts behind Scratch, however, I wonder whether a similar framework for 3D virtual worlds can re-ignite the Self-Expression stage.

Wider Adoption via Easier Development Tools

Scratch was created to empower youngsters by making it easier to build computer applications.  A similar approach may be needed to empower creators of 3D virtual worlds.  Let’s face it, creating a virtual world is not easy – it requires specialized skills.  Those who can afford it (e.g. corporations) often outsource 3D virtual world creation to agencies or development shops.

What results is a classic “chicken and egg” problem – the barrier for creation results in less supply (e.g. fewer interesting 3D worlds), which depresses demand (e.g. less people interested in visiting virtual worlds), which keeps the supply low (e.g. less interest to create them, since no one will visit).

This phenomenon may explain why IMVU is thriving, while other services (e.g. There.com, Google Lively, Vivaty) have folded.  IMVU brings the world to you – that is, the self-expression is focused around your avatar, rather than building worlds.  It’s easy to customize your avatar – and, if you’re so inclined, you can design virtual clothing and accessories, that are then made available to other users within IMVU.

Importance of Feedback Mechanisms

Scratch has two feedback mechanisms that are central to its success.  First, users can see the result of their work (in real-time) as they’re building the application.  The conventional cycle of computer programming is “code, run, debug” – with Scratch, you don’t debug, so much as you adjust your application as you go.

The second feedback mechanism comes from the Scratch community. Users can upload their application and have others post comments and suggestions.  This gives programmers the positive reinforcement behind their work (e.g. there’s an audience for my creation), which creates more incentives to create more applications and be part of an active community.

Both mechanisms could be effective in 3D virtual world creation.  The community aspect, in fact, addresses the chicken and egg problem, as the developers create an audience for each other – and can encourage their network of friends and colleagues to visit virtual worlds that they’ve found and reviewed.

Open Sourcing, Sharing and Remixing

The name “Scratch” is derived from the way disc jockeys scratch records to re-mix existing songs into new creations.  Community members can view the code for any uploaded Scratch application and are free to re-mix and modify existing applications.

This is a tried and true way to learn computer programming – take someone’s existing program, study the source code, then add some pieces to it.  Once you’ve done that a few times, you’re ready to write your own program from scratch (pun intended).

Sharing and re-mixing makes it easier to get started, will encourage wider adoption and is sure to generate interesting creations.  Imagine if a similar framework existed for 3D virtual worlds.

Conclusion

One of the prominent barriers to 3D virtual world adoption is the lack of easy creation tools.  Let’s learn from what MIT Media Lab has created with Scratch and see if we can apply their concepts to 3D virtual worlds.  How about it?

Related Links

  1. August 2008, NewScientist, “Creating your own computer game is child’s play
  2. March 2009, Wired, “Scratch Lowers Resistance to Programming
  3. May 2008, American Libraries, “Minds at Play

Virtual Mingle Rooms: Show Them What You’re Talking About

November 1, 2010

The following is a guest post by Daniel Ruscigno of Mingleverse.

Introduction

Mingleverse is a new service offering browser-based virtual rooms where 2 to 50 people can get together to talk using 3D audio while watching various types of media together (pictures, presentations, videos, webcam, screen broadcasting, etc).

Although predominantly a consumer-facing service, Mingleverse is used not only by friends and family in Facebook, but also by teachers and trainers, and small businesses.  However, the most interesting adoption has been with authors and athletes who are using their Mingle Room to mingle live with their fans.

Use Cases

For example, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell had a live virtual mingle with 25 of his fans, where they were all able to ask him questions about his books and his future writing plans.  Gladwell mingled from the comfort of his New York apartment and came into the room via webcam for all of the fans to see.  He commented afterwards that it really did feel like meeting 25 new people, and the fans were ecstatic that they got to meet their favorite author.

The Vancouver Canucks NHL team have also taken advantage of Mingleverse’s virtual Mingle Rooms by embedding one directly on their website.  After each home game the Canucks invite their fans to join the Mingle Room to talk about the night’s game, watch live post game interviews and press conferences together, and watch highlights streamed directly from YouTube.

There are now several professional sports teams who are looking to be the leaders in live fan interaction and are excited about providing fans the opportunity to mingle live with players and coaches.

Conclusion

As Mingleverse has shown, virtual world technologies allow us to become more interactive with people from all over the world and can afford us new opportunities not regularly available in our daily physical lives.  As we adopt these new technologies, perhaps our celebrity idols will ask you to meet them in their Mingle Room in their next tweet!

You can try Mingleverse for free at http://mingleverse.com or through the Mingleverse Facebook Application.

Related: Mingleverse picks up $1.4M in seed funding for video conferencing with cardboard cutouts (from VentureBeat, Dec 2010)


“It’s All Virtual” On Virtual Worlds

October 3, 2010

Introduction

Given Microsoft’s rumored interest in acquiring Linden Lab (developers of Second Life), I thought I’d assemble some recent virtual worlds content.

Related: “Microsoft Buys Vivaty For New Project, May Be Looking For More,” from Virtual Worlds News

Virtual worlds have taken a hit, as Twitter, Facebook and other services have become media darlings.  And while I love social networks as much as anyone, I do think the market is under-considering (if that’s a word) the potential of virtual worlds technologies.

At A Crossroads: Where Does Second Life Go From Here?

I analyzed different directions that Linden Lab could take Second Life.  Of course, one that I did not cover was an exit – if the rumored exit (Microsoft) were to happen, I’m very curious to see how and where Microsoft folds the Second Life technology into its business.

On a slightly related topic, I wrote about how virtual worlds can be more like Twitter and Facebook – that is, more social and more open to the rest of the web.

Related: Guest Post from Pooky Amsterdam, “The Business Benefits of Second Life.”

Conference Coverage: FountainBlue Virtual Worlds (September 2010)

  1. 3 Virtual Worlds Technologies To Watch
  2. Trends In The Virtual Worlds Industry
  3. Hear From A Panel Of Virtual Worlds Entrepreneurs

Conference Coverage: Stanford Media X Virtual Worlds (August 2010)

  1. Stanford Media X Event: Virtual Worlds Entrepreneurs Show The Way
  2. Stanford Media X Event: IMVU’s Online Community

Hear From A Panel Of Virtual Worlds Entrepreneurs

September 30, 2010

On September 24th, FountainBlue held its annual virtual worlds conference.  This year’s event was hosted on Cisco’s campus in Milpitas, CA.  In the afternoon, a panel of virtual worlds entrepreneurs spoke about new developments in the industry.  The panel was titled “Entrepreneur Panel: The Tools, The Goods, The Immersion Experience”:

  1. Facilitator Nina Gerwin, The NRG Group
  2. Michael Gold, CEO, Electrotank: virtual world & virtual games development platform
  3. Steve Hoffman, CEO, Rocketon: virtual world for tweeners
  4. Albert Kim, CEO, Zenitum: Augmented reality with 3D displays
  5. Jim Parker, President, Digitell: SaaS 3D immersive virtual events and virtual training

I covered some of these entrepreneurs’ businesses in a separate posting about virtual worlds technologies to watch.

Adapting your business

Each panelist was asked to describe the genesis behind their business.  As is customary with web startups today, no one is working against their original business model or vision.

For Digitell’s Jim Parker, business began by assembling content for online libraries.  Then, he was struck by the notion of allowing consumers of the library content to meet and collaborate in real-time.

Zenitum’s Albert Kim experiments with a number of different technologies.  When one set of technologies differs enough from the core set, he looks to spin that out into an independent company.

Online gaming

Online and social gaming may be the hottest trend on the web today.  So of course the topic arose with Electrotank’s Michael Gold and RocketOn’s Steve Hoffman.  Gold and Hoffman highlighted technologies available to game makers today:

  1. Flash
  2. HTML5
  3. Objective C
  4. Unity

Note: Unity’s David Helgason spoke on the Trends Panel at this event.

According to Gold, HTML5 has its benefits, but you can’t yet develop a game using it.

Note: Michael Gold posted the following clarification:

“I just want to make a quick correction on a statement about HTML5 that was attributed to me in this blog post. What I said on the panel was that HTML5 is not yet practical for developing *virtual worlds* but has great potential in a few years.

Virtual worlds and MMOs present unique technical challenges that are distinctly different than those presented by the majority of social and casual online and mobile *games* Thus in my opinion it is completely possible to develop *games* using HTML5 at the present time. There are several developers focusing on these games right now. In fact, Zynga recently purchased one – Dextrose, a German development studio. I actually believe you’ll see a significant number of HTML5 games on the market a year from now. Just not so many virtual worlds or MMOs.”

Virtual worlds and engagement

An audience member asked how virtual worlds can track engagement – so that in a corporate setting, the meeting host can measure whether the content is hitting the mark.  Digitell’s Parker notes his clients often use his system for accreditation.  The system uses an idle timer – it renders a “click to continue” message and if the user does not click within 10 seconds, “you don’t get accreditation.”

Studies have shown that viewers of webinars often lose attention and multitask.  A virtual world forces users to remain engaged.  Parker notes that for some sessions, the instructor leads the “students” on a guided walk.  “If Jim doesn’t follow the rest of the group, then you know he’s not paying attention.”

Conclusion

Believe it or not, it’s not a bad time to be a virtual worlds entrepreneur.  As the panel demonstrated, the key is to be nimble and adapt to a changing marketplace.  Next year, it will be interesting to see how these entrepreneurs evolved – and, to see what new entrepreneurs appear on the scene.


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