May 27 2022

Jacquelyn Morie

One of the most eagerly awaited films of 2022 is James Cameron’s second Avatar movie, Avatar: The Way of Water.  Set in the mid-22nd Century when Avatar technology has reached an incredible level of sophistication, these advanced Avatars are organic, genetically engineered to meld the DNA of a specific human to that of a specially grown surrogate body — typically an alien being. Originally created as an off-world labor force, they proved to be more valuable as human ambassadors to an otherworld species — the Na’vi on the planet Pandora.

In their uniquely designed Na’vi Avatar body, a human can breathe a different atmosphere, adapt to being extra tall (with a tail), enjoy super strength, and exist harmoniously within the Na’vi society.

Many of us, especially Avatar film fans, long for the day when existing as an Avatar as depicted in the film is finally possible. Yes, please! But how close are we really? How easily can we transport our human consciousness into an Avatar vessel — of any kind?

Looking back from that longed-for future time to now, at the start of the 21st Century,  we can see the beginning of this physical Avatar dream becoming reality. Let’s start with the vessel. Organic, genetically fashioned bodies with psionic mind control may be the ultimate physical form, but we don’t have to wait for that to be available at the nearest Avatar store. 

Right now there are innovators around the globe creating physical robotic Avatars that a human can control with virtual reality gear that translates the operator’s movements to that of the robot, even at a remote location. Not mind control, but actual physical, kinesthetic, body-to-body control. By controlling an Avatar in this fashion, I can walk down a distant hallway, pet the family dog in my childhood home, or give my best friend in another city an encouraging pat on the back.  

To help accelerate the development of Avatar technology, XPRIZE launched the ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition in Spring 2018. For four years now, competing teams have been creating, testing, refining and putting their unique Avatar concepts out into the world as the initial groundwork for the coming Avatar of the future.

These systems are first generation, to be sure, but they are laying the essential  foundations for our upcoming future of being able to “Avatar-In” to distant locations without having to endure arduous travel or lose precious hours. Our surrogate body may be robotic, but it will convey the sensations of another place directly to our own human form, using unique transmission methods, some of which are redefining the boundaries of sensory experience.

There is no one solution right now; yet each development, each advance, brings us a step closer to realizing the Avatar dream.  

The usefulness of such Avatars range from the purposeful to the imaginative. Connecting humans physically across distances is a central tenet, as is allowing an expert to share their much needed medical or engineering skills in a remote village. But also possible: the thrill of exploration–from roaming exotic black sand beaches to inspecting the magnificent ruins of Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey.  What if someday we could even explore the dark side of the moon? The possibilities are endless. Humans are certain to embrace this extension of what it means to be human — both the usefulness and the wonder.

Future generations may take such wonders for granted. They will know a world where the limitations of distance, time and physical challenges are concerns of the past. Someday James Cameron’s vision of organic Avatars may come to pass, but intrepid creators are taking on the challenge to bring the first robotic Avatars into being right now. The Avatar future is closer than we think. Bring it on!

Want to see this emerging technology in person? Join us in Long Beach, CA to watch finalist teams from around the world push the boundaries of telepresence technology and compete for the grand prize in the LIVE ANA Avatar XPRIZE Finals Testing round on November 4-5, 2022.  Sign up to learn more about the in person event here.

Jacquelyn Morie