During the #ESPC22 Conference I had interesting conversations with attendees about avatars, that expanded to body image and inclusion talks. That is the beauty of international conferences – you engage with people coming from different backgrounds, cultures, companies and the most importantly having different experiences. All that sparks for inspiring and sparring conversations you don’t get too often. Exchange of ideas, points of views and also cultural aspects is a treasure for sure. During this year I have had the pleasure to join several in-person events in various countries – I have to say I am humbled and honored for that. To have the opportunity to learn outside my own bubble and expand my views. One of those conversations evolved from the question “Why avatars don’t have legs” to our body image and beyond.
Why Avatars don’t have legs?
This is a big thing for lots of people. “Why I am just flying around, I have no legs!?”
I am a person who went to school during 80s and also got my first home computer during the same decade. Games of that era – well, think Space Invader and you can imagine sprites moving on the screen. You needed a lot of imagination to be immersed in the story and in the game. Why didn’t Space Invaders had fully rendered beautiful 3D UFO-invaders? Well, the technical capabilities and performance was not there. It was far far away.
When thinking about the collaboration, meetings and the metaverse we are in the situation where people don’t have a unified single device they use. We have a spectrum of different devices and computers we use to join meetings and the metaverse. There are various tech specs – some have $3k gaming rig, some are using $300 mobile phone – and anything between. Beautiful games we see running on Xbox or PlayStation have been developed and optimized to use capabilities of those consoles. This is why some games there look so good. If you take a look at the multiplayer games, you can usually already see a drop in the graphics quality. That is because game scenes can’t be optimized like single player games can. There is a human factor and what people do needs to be noted. In those games your gaming character (or avatar) has legs and it moves pretty good – why not in the Metaverse then?
Avatars in Microsoft Teams (and other apps) need to note the variations people have with their avatars. Different looks, faces, clothes and so on. All these needs to be rendered on the participant’s device. Depending on the platform this can be quite a performance eater. You add there a set of arms and hands, meaning that all those variations needs to be counted in also when you are using VR controllers.
If those solutions would only be used via 2D experience, there would be a lot less to think about. Head, arms and legs would do their predetermined (programmed) movements and reactions. There is a finite number of variations. Now, let’s take that VR headset and put it on..
In the Metaverse (or virtual reality, if you prefer that one) you usually have visor and controllers. Visor (or the headset) knows your head movements, direction of look and can also have gaze and face tracking. All these add for a lot more variations every device needs to note and render. There is a lot more information involved. That will affect the performance on some devices. The performance is one of first reasons I tell to people why Avatars don’t have legs.
Performance will get better over time. Devices evolve, technology evolves. There will be clever Web3 ways to render content better and better over time. So in time we will start seeing legs for avatars – as well as better looking avatars.
From the performance my next topic of discussion is usually the body image. I have read various articles how it is more or less impossible to extrapolate leg positions from just the head and hand movements. That means that based only on positions of your head and hands it is very difficult (or impossible) to calculate how your feet are.
This may not sound much, but when you are in the immersive world you can look down (or to a mirror). This is the moment that can cause a lot of issues for people if your legs are in a different position than your avatar’s legs. That can give a big emotional mismatch. This is especially if you are walking around or standing. It can feel strange to see your own legs out of control – and when you move your legs avatar’s legs move differently or don’t move at all.
Having misbehaving legs can be quite disturbing for your body image – how you perceive you. It can get you off balance. What about If you are legless? I don’t feel I am missing something ( I know my legs exist and I know why my avatar doesn’t have them) but some people do. For some people this is a difficult thing – and that is why eventually we need to have legs on avatars.
And it is not just legs. If you are in a wheelchair, for example, you might expect that your avatar is in one as well. Otherwise that can feel strange. How about if the avatar doesn’t support your body type? For example my Ready Player Me avatar is way less than half of my weight – it feels really odd for me to see my avatar being extremely slim. Frankly it is as alien to me as I would be using a dragon or abstract form as my avatar. I just can’t relate to that. I can move it, I can interact with it but it is very far away of that what I consider to be me.
There are several ways to get legs right. You could scan the whole body with camera or use various trackers that are places on different parts of your body – such as arms and legs. Or perhaps we can extrapolate leg positions from head and hands movements one day. So the future will be better on this one, but for both performance and body image reasons it is a good idea that our avatars don’ t have legs and fly around.
Of course if you sit in your office chair and your avatar is walking around (movement via controllers) then there is no way to get your legs right – unless your avatar is sitting on a chair in the virtual space.
Avatars with Legs today – why some platforms don’t have them?
There are various platforms (worlds) that have legs on their avatars. For example you can use ReadyPlayer.Me avatar in the Spatial. In Spatial avatars have legs. Except your own avatar. Your own avatar doesn’t even have arms, but only hands. That is removing the body image issue on getting arms and legs right. But when you explore Spatial you can see others have their legs and thus you assume you have them also.
That is the the way we are going to see next: Showing legs for other people’s avatars and skipping our own. You don’t have a body image issue and you feel the world seems to be more complete. It also saves performance (legs can be more easier rendered when those don’t have much dynamic actions involved).
If you talk about Microsoft Teams meeting and avatars today – well, those don’t need legs because in most of Teams calls we go along with business on top alone. We don’t show our real legs either. This works especially well in the 2D gallery view.
Getting arms and legs right can be quite complicated as well. I had a Spatial meeting with my colleague (just to try it out) and I noticed she floated 5-10 cm from the floor. I found that quite amusing, but also a reminder how it can be fairly difficult to get legs right. In the same meeting her arms had also some strange positions (coming through her body) because calculating arm positions based on hands (controllers) isn’t a bullet proof solution. Moments and glitches like that break the immersion and just trick your mind to pay attention to those weird details that would not really even matter.
For some people, it may be important to show their avatar with legs, instead of a wheelchair. Just as some people want to show or hide their cultural or ethnical background. Some want to be think, when they are thick in the real life. It is about how we want to express ourselves and how we want to have less (or more) assumptions based on our looks and not what we say. At work and in the office our expertise and opinions need to be the #1, not the way we look. And that is inclusivity and embracing diversity to include everyone to achieve more together. Let’s put #PeopleFirst also in the Metaverse.