February 28, 2023
Whenever I read about a future in which we meet as avatars in virtual conference rooms, my first thought is always “What will my avatar wear?” What is appropriate workplace attire in the metaverse, and will our work avatars be required to look like us?
Surprisingly, professional avatar etiquette is not a new concern. Back in 2009, Gartner analysts recommended employers establish ground rules for employee avatars, predicting that 70% of companies would have a digital dress code and other guidelines for employees in virtual business settings by 2014.
Of course Gartner’s prediction did not come true, but it did highlight an aspect of the enterprise metaverse that’s overshadowed by the current aesthetic and technical challenges of avatar creation: Digital identity in the virtual workplace.
Theoretically, your avatar could be anything. It could look and act completely different from you in the real world, but should it? For some people, that’s the appeal of the metaverse–new possibilities for self-expression. Others warn of digital identity fraud, “deep fakes,” and new types of cybercrimes, which is a whole other discussion.
Let’s start with the basics: What is an avatar and what is the difference between an avatar and a digital human?
The word avatar was first popularized to describe on-screen (computer) representations of Internet users and gamers in the 80s. Avatars are still digital representations of people online, but they can vary widely in terms of style and control.
A traditional avatar represents a real person and is under that person’s control. We tend to build avatars that are recognizable as us for use in games, social media and texting, but avatars aren’t necessarily realistic or even humanoid. They range from cartoonish to photorealistic, can be 2D or 3D, bodiless or full-body. Real-time 3D (RT3D) avatars can replicate real-world expressions and gestures thanks to sensors built into the latest XR hardware (eye tracking, hand tracking, etc.) and thus communicate the user’s behavior and emotions to an extent.
Then, there are AI avatars, digital humans that live in a virtual setting (on a website, in a game, etc.) and are trained through algorithms and experience to mimic human behaviors and facial expressions. Today, AI-powered avatars are mainly used to provide customer service (digital assistants), but in the future companies could deploy them as virtual salespeople, receptionists, HR representatives, even healthcare providers and financial advisors–at a fraction of the cost of their real-life counterparts. Digital influencers like Lil Miquela also fall into this category.
(Side note: Though ‘hologram’ and ‘avatar’ often appear together, holograms of people are typically used for telepresence and generated through a combo of video and AI.)
VR avatar creation
So, how do you create an avatar? Most social VR apps like Spatial and Meta Horizon Workrooms come with an avatar builder. These and other online avatar creation tools for non-developers such as Ready Player Me (compatible with Spatial, VRChat, and more) allow you to choose from a range of readymade options then make adjustments to specific physical features (nose shape, body shape, skin tone, hairstyle, etc.) and wardrobe–not all that unlike The Sims video game.
I customized this avatar that sort of resembles me in Spatial:
Selfie to avatar
You can also generate an avatar from a selfie. There are many online tools that use AI to turn a photo of you into a personalized avatar.
Ready Player Me has an option to generate a realistic head for your avatar by taking or uploading a selfie. HTC’s VIVE Avatar Creator mobile app does the same (see middle avatar above).
Once generated, you can edit your avatar to your liking before exploring the VIVERSE.
I demoed a number of free AI avatar generators promising a realistic avatar of myself from just one selfie. Even with a good, well-lit selfie (I used stock photos), the quality was lower than the avatars advertised across the companies’ websites:
The tool that produced the most lifelike avatar in terms of appearance was Avatar SDK. Avatar SDK’s website claims that “hundreds of customers, from startups to Fortune 500 companies” use its platform to create personalized 3D avatars compatible with VRChat, Mozilla Hubs, and more. Aside from that, I was pretty underwhelmed by the avatar makers I tried.
A simple Google image search of social VR avatars reveals a wide range of avatar styles but few that I would describe as photorealistic. Perhaps I’m unfairly comparing VR avatars to highly developed 3D video game characters or perhaps visions of the metaverse like this one from HTC are misleading. One thing is certain: Realism is highly subjective and the word avatar is greatly overused.
Where are the realistic avatars?
It is possible to create highly realistic 3D avatars, just not with one photo. Many of the AI avatars deployed by businesses are the product of expensive 3D scanners, multiple AI technologies, sophisticated modeling, and advanced animation techniques. Meta’s prototype Codec Avatars, for example, require several hours of scanning in a specialized capture rig followed by days of processing through machine learning.
We’re a long way away from making such technology plug-and-play for everyday VR headset users, but that doesn’t mean that today’s simple avatars aren’t effective or can’t confer some of the user’s personality traits: Customizable avatars for meetings are one solution to Zoom fatigue, while corporations like Pfizer use apps like Spatial to remotely onboard employees.
Can your avatar move like you? One limitation to embodied avatars is that today’s standalone VR headsets and controllers are unable to track the user’s lower body. This means that Meta Quest 2 and other popular devices don’t know where your legs are.
Truly lifelike avatars require full-body tracking, which is possible with external motion trackers and cameras (i.e. a more complicated VR setup). The limited computing power of current hardware is another challenge. For now, Meta and other companies use pre-trained AI models to approximate lower body movements.
Above the waist is a different story: Natural Facial Expressions, an optional feature introduced with the Quest Pro, allows your avatar to mirror your facial expressions. When joining Spatial in VR, your avatar can embody your hand gestures, bringing back some of the non-verbal cues with which we communicate in real life. Both examples are a preview of what’s to come, as Meta’s goal is nothing short of true telepresence in a consumer headset. In other words, Meta is pursuing hyper-realistic avatars and wants to make all the necessary tracking, processing, and rendering doable in real time in a standalone headset.
If you could instantly create your own digital twin, would you want to? Dystopian nightmares and privacy issues around biometric data collection aside, not everyone may want an exact replica for VR. You might want an avatar that looks nothing like you or even a non-human avatar (though perhaps not for work purposes).
A more basic, cartoony avatar style also has the advantage of avoiding the Uncanny Valley, or the point at which lifelike avatars become creepy and distracting and thus ineffective for meetings, product demos, etc.
There’s also the matter of interoperability: While there is a standardized format for RT3D avatars (VRM or virtual reality model), it’s not yet possible to move seamlessly from app to app as a single avatar. Demand for expressive, photorealistic avatars will increase when avatars become true extensions of our identities in the virtual world, capable of acting on our behalf across miniverses.
Choosing an avatar for work
One day, human-like avatars will be accessible to everyone. When that day comes, we may have multiple avatars, one each for working, socializing, and gaming in the metaverse. But what is appropriate work attire for an avatar, and does your work avatar have to look like you?
Experts say avatars will help humanize the hybrid work experience, making remote and in-person workers feel as though they’re sharing the same experience or space. That implies our work avatars will be lifelike in appearance, but what about resemblance? Is it unprofessional or unethical to use an avatar for business that doesn’t look like you in the real world? We already curate our online identities and, in the age of remote work, it’s not uncommon to have never met or even seen some of your coworkers and clients–it doesn’t significantly impact your work or the company. So, then, does it matter who your avatar looks like as long as it looks human?
It’s something to think about because avatars aren’t superficial like a profile picture. For one, the avatars of Meta’s dreams will communicate for you, embodying your movements in all-hands meetings, customer service scenarios, sales pitches, job interviews, etc. Moreover, it’s been found that an avatar’s appearance impacts the user’s behavior in the virtual world, including how much the user identifies with his or her avatar. Studies have shown, for instance, that attractive avatars stand closer to other avatars in virtual space, while taller avatars are more assertive and confident talking to other avatars–it’s not hard to see the potential implications for work performance.
What if the idealized avatar version of you is of a different age or gender, reflecting the authentic self inside of you? With the ability to update your avatar anytime, identity can be fluid in the metaverse. This is both empowering and alarming, on one hand granting the freedom to express oneself in ways not possible in the physical world and on the other presenting the opportunity to conceal one’s identity/don a new one.
Identity is a highly sensitive and nuanced issue in today’s society, an issue that will undoubtedly follow us into the metaverse. Politics aside, choosing an avatar for work adds another dimension to existing corporate dress codes, raising questions around professionalism, transparency, individual rights, and personal privacy. Will employers be allowed to regulate the appearance of employees’ avatars beyond their clothing? Might embracing the ability to represent yourself in any way you want encourage a true meritocracy of ideas in the workplace? And could an employee or company be sued for misrepresenting their identity to a client?
On another side of the dice, everyone has the right to an avatar that looks like them. To that end, there must be avatar design options reflecting the diversity of today’s workforce/society. The good news is that most avatar makers have inclusive options enabling diverse people to see themselves in their avatars today, including non-gendered clothing and hijabs in Spatial as well as bindi and hearing devices in the Meta world. While not comprehensive, these offerings seem to grow with every update.
We’re seeing the beginnings of a fundamental shift in the way we work and socialize. While the focus today is often on the potential use cases and technological challenges to the metaverse, the transition to the enterprise metaverse will also bring up social and employee relations issues we have yet to consider. Looking through the lens of personal vs. professional avatars is a good way to identify some of those issues and start the difficult discussions that will need to be had.