Why you should care
Because with virtual reality comes avatars.
I feel like Wonder Woman. I’m standing with one hand on my hip and the other thrust into the air like a superhero, and scores of tiny cameras are snapping photos of me from every angle. “Please remain still,” a pleasant woman’s voice commands before telling me my scan is complete. Within minutes, as though plucked from scenes in a sci-fi flick, I’m squatting, jumping and kung fu fighting on-screen.
Of course, the lady with all the right moves isn’t really me; she’s my 3-D avatar. But she looks just like me — same height, same weight, same gray streak in her hair — and she’s giving me a hint of how avatars that look, move and sound like us could revolutionize how we interact. Not just online, where avatars will likely be Facebook photos, but IRL too: Our cartoon, pixel-fueled selves could show us the way to overcome anxiety, lose weight, become a total baller. Ironically, proponents say, our avatars could even help us achieve self-actualization. Yep, our fake selves could help our real selves become … realer.
The concept might mind-boggle, especially in an age when luminaries no less bright than Elon Musk believe we may all be living in a computer simulation anyway. Of course, digital people already serve as doubles in films like Avatar and The Matrix, doing everything too dangerous or supernatural for actors. But those carbon copies cost hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars, so techies are trying to make them affordable enough that everyone can generate a 3-D version of themselves. With Goldman Sachs predicting the VR industry will net $80 billion by 2025, cheap avatars could make for big business. Progress being made today could see digital humans being created for next to nothing, in nearly no time at all and without any expertise, which means we could all have virtual superhero alter egos soon.
“If it’s fast and cheap, it’s going to be pervasive,” says Ari Shapiro, head of the character animation and simulation group at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). He and Evan Suma, director of the mixed-reality lab at ICT, use a technique called photogrammetry, which takes pictures from different angles and reconstructs people in 3-D. Usually that requires 100 fancy DSLR cameras and lenses; instead, Shapiro and Suma use 100 Raspberry Pi units — cheap, credit card–size single-board computers — attached to $20 cameras. The whole kit costs about $5,000 and the process takes 10 minutes. “Economically this is a major upgrade,” Shapiro says. They’re also working on open-source software that would turn the laser inside any Xbox into an avatar generator.
Realistic avatars could also change the social aspect of games and other digital platforms, challenging psychological theories about human interaction. The new technology, says Skip Rizzo, director of ICT’s medical virtual-reality program, will be useful not just for teaching and training, but also as a way for scientists to better understand “how people interact and behave in a virtual world.” Grants are flowing in from social-science and psychology institutions looking for answers to questions like whether we’ll be more careful — or more violent — in video games with our own avatars. Perhaps seeing an elderly version of your avatar will prompt you to put more savings away for retirement, or maybe seeing a fitter “you” will encourage a healthier lifestyle.
Scientists have studied avatars for a while now, but the onslaught of virtual-reality tech — at affordable prices — gives the field wider relevance. Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has long been interested in how virtual avatars can be coupled with social cognition theory to help change people’s behavior. He’s credited with conceiving “the proteus effect,” which describes how virtual behavior is influenced by stereotypes around an avatar’s physical characteristics. Giuseppe Riva at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy, meanwhile, uses avatars to study body dysmorphia. He’s found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that patients with eating disorders tend to pick a version two sizes bigger than themselves as their avatars. Other research shows that even seeing yourself being kind to others can make your flesh-and-blood self kinder, raising hope that superhero-like traits in our digital selves could make us superhumans.
So are avatar-pumping mall kiosks at 10 bucks a pop right around the corner? Perhaps. But without software or platforms for using these avatars, they’ll be good for nothing more than printing out 3-D wedding cake toppers of ourselves, which is why researchers like Suma are putting all of their software online, open source. It’s the only way to get the technology into as many hands as possible, Suma says.
Still, even Wonder Woman might see future bumps in the road. Just imagine when average Joe, with his average Joe avatar, becomes famous — but has signed away rights to his digital persona. Suddenly his 3-D carbon copy is endorsing Donald Trump or repping Doritos without his human’s permission. There’s currently no legal framework for copyrighting digital people, Suma says, pointing to one of the unknowns related to this technology.
There are also skeptics who say avatars and science shouldn’t mix. Some psychologists, Rizzo says, feel that technology “takes away from the human element of therapy.” Maybe psychological issues can’t be worked out in the virtual road. Nonetheless, Facebook recently bought Oculus, a virtual-reality company, for $2 billion, so boss Mark Zuckerberg clearly thinks that these kinds of 3-D interactive technologies are the future. With the advent of VR technology, these digital clone makers are clearly on to something … even if, as Suma says, it “requires a leap in imagination.”