Avatars: When We Can’t Be There In Person 

Apr 14 2020

Jacquelyn Ford Morie

Anyone who has been alive in the last 100 years has lived through some extraordinary times. During this period, the exponential and inexorable march of technology development has fueled a race to new forms of communication throughout the planet. One hundred years ago we barely had the telephone to bring us together, to mitigate the distances that separated us. Now we have computers, video conferencing, and emerging immersive platforms that allow our digital projections to meet within the vast formless ether of the internet. 

In the last few months, our safely understood world order has been upended. Where we could count on easy and accessible travel to distant places (albeit at some cost to the environment) we cannot now take such physical travel for granted. Hushed discussions debate whether we will ever be able to crisscross the globe as we once did so cavalierly.

What might emerge from this intense inflection point we are experiencing? Can new forms of connectivity offer a glimpse into a new normal? We are already witnessing extraordinary efforts to harness existing connectivity platforms to keep us working, entertained, and smiling at family and friends across the world. Just a few years ago, we had no idea just how important these programs might become.  

As we continue to enhance our digital platforms to better support our connectivity; and once we inhabit avatars as commonly as we put on a daily outfit, will we be satisfied with that version of human experience? Will the human-to-human relationships initiated and maintained this way provide what we fundamentally need? Certainly, these mechanisms of togetherness will allow us to communicate, to conduct business, play together, and to virtually travel and experience digital recreations and immersive video of distant destinations.

But something is missing in this imagined post-pandemic future. What happens to human touch—that physical connection—when our primary means of coming together is digital?  In present day, we know that babies who are never touched fail to thrive. We, humans, require touch; our skin is our largest sensory organ and informs our very being and sense of self. Absent this, how do we thrive as humans in an immaterial world? 

The solution is to incorporate an embodied physicality into our digital solutions—to be able to reach out and touch and feel, as well as see and hear, our fellow humans no matter the distance. And there are people around the globe working on such solutions right now. Teams who have accepted the challenge to compete in the recent ANA-sponsored Avatar XPRIZE are designing the first examples of a new generation of robotic avatars that will allow us to transport our senses, including touch, to a remote, physical avatar form. Imagine a few decades hence: you are in your hometown, and your elderly father is in a retirement village far away. Travel is not as easy as it once was, but robotic avatars are plentiful.  Not only are there virtual facilities where one can rent usage of such an avatar, some people actually have some in their homes, like so many had home computers at the beginning of the 21st Century.

A visit is now as simple as you “avatar-ing in” to a remote physical form at the desired location. Once “there,” you can control the robotic avatar so it can walk, share a conversation, play a card game, even give a remote hug to the person at the other location. The benefits of having a physical robotic form is that it will be able—once the technologies are advanced a bit more—to transmit physical sensations as well as audio and visual ones. The ultimate goal is to enable human touch, a critical human need.  

Today it is obvious how much we need to develop these future technologies of connection. The current global state is a wake-up call for how important human-to-human connection truly is, and how we need to rethink the ways we have until now, enabled those connections. Initial efforts will be a start, but we can foresee these technologies becoming something truly convenient, effective, and fulfilling, and able to reflect who we are in ways we can now only imagine. For example, in 50 or a hundred years, robotic avatars may come to look just like us.  

To further immerse the public into possible futures enabled by avatar technology, we have launched a new sci-fi anthology and short story writing contest, based in the imagined world of Avatars Inc. Inspired by the ANA Avatar XPRIZE, 24 world-class authors have imagined the future of telepresence technologies to spark our imagination and give us hope for a better future. We are also asking the public to write an original short story about a future avatar use-case with the winner receiving an iMac Pro and more. 

Here is my take at bringing to life one possible future:

She remembers fondly her first experience with the Atlas 8000 - a breakthrough robot by Hoxxa that was the first of its kind to have facial expressions tied to the operator’s own. So at a distance, the silvery face (robots were still mainly metal back then) would smile fluidly, track the recipient with its eyes, and even show the semblance of laugh lines. It wasn’t quite her mother when she was avatar-ed into that robot form, but her presence was there, in some strange way.

Now, thirty years later, it is the “Golden Age of Avatars.” Everyone on the planet uses them. The latest batch of avatars has SinDYN, a synthetic “DNA” that creates a skin surface that actually looks like the person using it. When donning the Avatar, an operator (now simply called an OpAv) is scanned for the SSL (Secure Identity Layer) and then the SinDYN system scans their stored data, which informs the Avatar skin to reshape to that data. Most people keep their data up to date with yearly scans, so they always looked like their physical form, but there is an emerging market of SynDYN designers who can beautify your form or make your wildest persona dreams come true. Performers typically are able to shell out the vast sums to do this, and, oh the crazy concerts and acts that are seen!

So, while the future may look very different from today, with new ways to transport our very selves into remote forms, the fact that we are humans who need to share presence and physicality will emerge as a core component. Our new technologies must accommodate who we are and what we have evolved to be as humans. And in days to come, we might just find ourselves looking back to the ANA Avatar XPRIZE as the start of that future!

Jacquelyn Ford Morie