One of the essential assets required when creating a social VR experience is a likable avatar. They should be customisable and look human-like, but not so much as to fall into the uncanny valley. Facebook and Oculus have recently revealed the struggle they have faced while deciding on styles, with Facebook listing the main requirements when creating a suitable avatar system.
Basically, your avatar is a virtual representation of yourself within a VR environment. You should be able to customise it to reflect your appearance and personal taste. It should also be easily recognisable as you to those who you communicate with regularly, like friends and colleagues. Speech needs to be mimicked on your avatar and sync well with your voice, so as not to be off-putting. Your hands (and body if possible) should also be tracked if you are using hand controllers, to help you communicate and connect with your fellow avatars.
Above: a graphic representation of the ‘uncanny valley’. Image: Copyright 2005 Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato.
One of the main issues with avatar creation is the uncanny valley. If a robotic or computer-generated figure looks very human-like but doesn’t display perfectly human reactions and gestures, it becomes repulsive and unlikable. Humans recognise there is something not quite right, and react accordingly. Which is fine if you are creating a ‘bad guy’ for your game, but not great if you are trying to connect people virtually.
Above: Oculus’ take on an avatar.
Oculus have worked around this issue by creating avatars that have bright colours and slightly cartoon features. Facebook have taken this a step further, making their avatars very unrealistic, with a range of ‘emoji emotions’ that appear on your avatar’s face when certain body movements are made. These methods pull the avatar design away from the uncanny valley and into the ‘cute’ section, where they have human-ish features but are not close enough to real-life to be scary.
Above: Facebook have taken a more cartoonish approach.
While these avatars will be available for social programs to be released in the future, we created something slightly different for our released educational platform, Engage. Engage is a purpose built social platform to be used by teachers, students and business people, and therefore has avatars that reflect this professionalism. Cartoonish features and bright colours would not suit our platform. We have therefore created realistic avatars, that can be customised to reflect your individuality.
Above: our avatars in Engage.
The avatars track your speech and eye movements and have full bodies, with legs that simulate movement determined by your headset positioning. You can move your hands to better communicate and interact with your virtual environment. Engage also allows you to hold private conversations or lessons in secure virtual locations. These avatars and spaces have been created to allow users to be fully immersed, and really get the most out of their VR experience.
Engage is available for free download on the Steam store, so why not download it and experience it yourself?