How deep into the digital realm do you want to dive? Video conferencing can put you face-to-face with anyone on the internet, but do you long to break through the glass of your desktop or smartphone and actually share space with a distant friend?
Avatar video conferencing will get you there. Eventually.
Avatars are our digital replicants. They have long transformed our movements and intentions into graphic reality within the gaming world, transporting us to places and investing us with powers we can’t physically realize. The cartoonish computer-generated figures that plunder the online battlefield, however, don’t cut it when we want to talk and travel as ourselves. No one wants to conduct business as a 2D cartoon. At least, no one who wants to be taken seriously.
What we need to delve into the digital world is an avatar. What we need in order to act as ourselves in the digital world is a more realistic avatar. Facebook is trying to make that happen.
Alternate Realities Aren’t Very Realistic
These computer-generated graphics fall into two broad categories:
- Virtual reality: This creates a wholly digital world for us to explore.
- Augmented or Mixed reality: This fuses our real-world view with digital images.
We have seen examples of both applied to video conferencing.
Augmented reality video calling is more of an aspiration at the moment, but there is plenty of tech with video conferencing potential being experimented with.
Virtual reality video calling is currently possible through platforms such as the Call of Duty-inspired rumii app, and the more Sims-themed platform Altspace VR. Both apps let you conduct a live conversation online in the form of a cartoonish digital avatar. You can see the Altspace version in the video below.
Augmented reality video calling is more of an aspiration at the moment, but there is plenty of tech with video conferencing potential being experimented with by companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Magic Leap (those of the famous whale leaping from the gymnasium floor, which inspired us with visions of all kinds of interactive classroom technology). The augmented reality Skype conversation presented below is the kind of digital-meets-reality world Microsoft has promised us its HoloLens will deliver… eventually.
In both cases there’s a distinct lack of humanity–the Skype version just projects your current chat window onto your wall rather than your desktop. Facebook wants to change that by finding a communications middle ground between the real and the computer-generated.
Facebook’s Avatar Video Conferencing Doppelgangers
Facebook’s goal, and ours as video callers, is to create more realistic avatars so that we can better take advantage of video conferencing’s digital potential. The tech giant’s Reality Labs division is currently working on a 3D scanning system that uses machine learning to collect and recreate human facial expressions. They’re calling the resulting digital doppelgangers Codec Avatars and promising the most realistic and conversational virtual reality video conferencing we’ve ever seen–though it will still be a few years before we get to actually see it.
Once it arrives, realistic avatar video conferencing will do much more than just let us talk face-to-face online.
The technology demands immense computing power and a 360-degree array of more than 132 cameras to achieve. It begins with the human model being photographed within that panoramic photo booth and ends with the resulting 3D scan being taught to mimic the person’s facial movements as they speak, processing information at 180 gigabytes per second. You can see the impressive resulting images below.
The Facebook researchers will obviously have to find a way to make all that computing and scanning power fit into a commercial product before the general public will ever get to use it, which is the cause of the delay. Once it arrives, however, realistic avatar video conferencing will do much more than just let us talk face-to-face online–after all, we can already do that with good old Skype.
Living as Digital Citizens
Video conferencing is a digital medium. The instant, intimate conversations we have across it consist of packets of data zooming along wires and through the air. Every other piece of information stored online or in your computer and smartphone operates in essentially the same manner. As such, avatar video conferencing can get us inside the digital world. Tech like Facebook’s Codec Avatars is essential to completing the immersion.
Avatars will change the way we manipulate digital information just as the mouse and the touch screen changed the way we interact with computers.
By donning a virtual reality headset and headphones, we should be able to convince our senses we are part of a new landscape. Within this landscape, our bodies (although, to be fair, the wait for realistic full-body avatars could be even longer than the wait for realistic faces) can manipulate the surrounding world with gestures as naturally as we navigate in the real world. Avatars will change the way we manipulate digital information just as the mouse and the touch screen changed the way we interact with computers. This time the change will be visual.
This means that our surroundings won’t need to be bound by physics. You’ll be able to chat with friends while flying or conduct an inspection of a new building site by climbing its walls. The files, images, plans, and videos that accompany our video meetings can be plucked from digital storage and displayed as broad as the stars above our virtual heads.
Video conferencing’s ability to recreate the intimacy of an in-person conversation over any earthly distance is remarkable. To really maximize its potential, though, we need to go beyond just interacting face-to-face on flat screens. Avatar video conferencing can give us the gift of three-dimensional space, allowing us to be in the room with each other. Now that’s a virtual leap forward.