Zuck’s New VR Avatar Still Looks Bootleg (But Has Legs)

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and general manager of avatars Aigerim Shorman show off the features of “legs” during the keynote of the Meta Connect conference.Gif: Meta

“Legs,” exclaimed Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg during his Meta Connect keynote in 2022. The camera then zoomed back to show his Horizon World avatar standing, actually standing. Really, it’s a new era.

Meta’s Reality Labs showed the first preview of Horizon World’s new avatars, with Zuckerberg himself once again forcing his “I was human” image to be the face of Meta’s attempt to create a live-in VR environment. The CEO said these newly designed avatars “have their own Meta style,” although it remains unclear how these avatars really stand above the shoulders of similar experiences like PlayStation Home (which came out in 2008).

Zuckerberg called legs “the most requested feature on our roadmap,” while he and Aigerim Shorman, Meta’s general manager of avatars and identity, lifted their legs up and down as if they were just getting used to the concept of gravity. The reason legs were so hard in the first place, according to Zuckerberg and Shorman, was because “legs are hard.” He added, “that’s why other virtual reality systems don’t have them either.”

That is clearly untrue. VRChat has had legs and more advanced full body tracking for years. Still, Zuckerberg said his company has worked hard to create systems to accurately simulate arms and legs in virtual space, because users might feel strange if their VR limbs bend in unnatural ways.

“Your brain is much more accepting of a representation of a part of you as long as it’s in the right position,” Zuckerberg said. He added that the biggest difficulty getting legs to work has been with occlusion, or the headset’s ability to know where your legs are. He said it takes an AI model to mimic where the legs are when blocked by the headset’s sensors by an intervening object.

Meta’s head said these avatars should be available “later next year” on phones, VR headsets, “and more”. Aigerim said their company’s plan was to allow avatars to be used across all Meta apps, including Facebook and Instagram, as well as virtual reality. Avatars are sticking their heads in stickers on Facebook and Instagram Messenger, and there are plans to include them in WhatsApp in some way. Avatars will also be useful in video chats in Messenger. Zuck even showed avatars dancing on Instagram rolls, but it remains to be seen if that will increase Reels’ influence among the app’s most devoted users.

Legs come to Horizon Worlds first before being included in Meta’s other apps.

Legs aside, the graphics on Meta’s avatars have been measurably improved over the balloon heads and dead eyes of the previous incarnation. Zuckerberg boasted that these avatars were the most expressive of their kind, although the pre-recorded demo shown in the keynote may not be the most accurate representation of the app’s capabilities. The CEO promised that cameras will detect if users are showing winks or outward expressions, and then replicate that on avatars themselves. He added that these avatars use AI to generate their moves.

The company also said it will release the Avatar Store later this year, first in VR. This allows users to spend real money on creator-made digital goods for their in-app faxes. Of course, Meta also promoted more brand affiliations with the Avatar Store, like with Netflix, because nothing screams individuality like a Stranger Things t-shirt you bought for your fake human counterpart.

Meta also showed codec avatars that used multiple cameras to

Meta also showed codec avatars that used multiple cameras to record “lifelike” digital versions of people for use in a future metaverse. Screenshot: Meta

Near the end of the keynote, Michael Abash, the lead scientist at Reality Labs, said the ultimate goal is avatars that are “photorealistic.” Why? Abash said this is because users need to feel at a “gut level” that they are with other people. He added that the end goal we should try to achieve is to interact with the metaverse “using personalized AI” that adapts to users and proactively understands input.

The company also showed so-called “codec avatars” that use full-body cameras to track users. Abash also said they were considering encrypting avatars and linking these real-looking versions of people to a special account for security reasons. This does bring up an interesting point: what should happen if people eventually learn to hack and steal people’s virtual avatars? Though all that technology seems far, far in the future, especially considering the company that only recently invented, ahem, “legs.”

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