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The world of avatars is becoming more visible and intriguing by the hour

Enter the world of avatars, AI, metaverse platforms with the DW Innovation team.

Author: DW Innovation

The most excited we've seen the teenage brother of a consortium member this year, was when the makers of Baldur's Gate, a famous role-playing game (RPG), made the following announcement: Henceforth, players can change their avatars during the game. Gaming studio Patch 3 explained that with the new update, it'll be possible to customize characters even after exiting the respective editor. That's a novel thing in the world of avatar-based games, a feature enabled by the progress made in the field of generative AI. This technology now greatly simplifies the process of building virtual environments and its characters, thus enhancing the range of creative choices.

Avatars, AI, and the metaverse

So what is an avatar? Simply put, it's a virtual (maybe slightly fictitious) representation of yourself, capable of performing actions (e.g. engaging in conversations) in a digital space. It can also function as a bot modelled on a human counterpart. Or as an entirely virtual entity/agent without any blueprint in the physical world. Depending on the use case, generative AI can help design and change appearance, voices, movements, as well as thoughts and dialogues of an avatar in what is often referred to as the metaverse now. The concept of the avatar is actually decades old (think: Ultima, Second Life, World of Warcraft etc.), but it's only now – in the 2020s – that avatars are becoming an integral part of all kinds of digital services and entertainment.  How did we get to this point?

3D, XR, the pandemic, and "the way of the future"

A very brief explanation could go like this: Advancements in computer graphics and streaming had already enabled a shift from 2D to 3D in terms of avatars and agents and catapulted video calls into the mainstream in the late 2010s. And then, in 2020, the pandemic hit. People were isolated. And people quickly realized that social interaction is an essential and fundamental need. So a lot of companies started pumping a lot of money into extended reality (XR) tech and collaborative online spaces. In this context, popular gaming platforms like Roblox also invested heavily into the expansion of avatar tech (and there didn't seem to be any problems in funding all this).

Last year, an AI avatar of Elvis Presley thrilled the audience of "America's Got Talent". Created by a singer and a technologist working together, it gave a convincing performance of the song "Hound Dog". In London’s West End, the ABBA show "Voyage",  which features all four members of the Swedish band in avatar form, has hit the mark of one million spectators. ABBA's Björn Ulvaeus says that avatars are "the way of the future". And Tom Hanks is convinced that he will act beyond his grave – in the form of an AI-driven avatar. 

Metaverse platform Ready Player Me (named after the 2011 VR sci-fi bestseller Ready Player One), recently launched its generative AI avatar creator. And similar tools are popping up just everywhere. Another one is Magic Avatars, a service that creates realistic 3D avatars from a single photo. There's also Synthesia, the most advanced AI avatar video maker in the market right now, with more than 120 languages and accents available.  The NBA created new AI tech which allows fans to have their very own avatar replace a regular player in a game – and Microsoft recently introduced an avatar generator for MS teams. These avatars are the harbingers of Microsoft Mesh, the Microsoft metaverse that's not available yet. With their avatar, users are supposed to take part in XR meetings and work collaboratively, without having to turn on their cameras. Microsoft advertises that employees can appear in any form they choose and that feels most comfortable, which is intended to promote diversity and inclusion. 

Inclusive avatars

Speaking of which, avatars are also used as sign language interpreters now. Israeli startup CODA aims to make video watching a lot easier for the deaf and hearing-impaired community. To this end, the company enlists AI-driven avatars able to translate spoken language into sign language almost instantaneously.  That's next level because up until recently, similar companies like signer.ai (India) or Signapse (UK) only offered to translate written text into sign language.

What's next?

In a nutshell, there are all kinds of (more or less) sophisticated avatars for all kinds of purposes now, but one big challenge remains: Creating an avatar / 3D character / virtual agent (call it what you like) which is portable, sustainable, versatile – and can be used in multiple environments. A solution like this would be very appealing to users facing a complex, rapidly growing digital/immersive space. Hopefully, SERMAS can make a positive contribution here.

In the meantime, let's all enjoy playing a little with 3D authoring tools, generative AI and immersive RPG worlds.

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