In the not so distant future, avatar tech will help us break down the barriers of time, space, and cultural differences – creating a more connected world
From the little pictures that we select for online messenger services, to the “choose your player” characters in gaming, avatars have existed for quite some time. We already use them to represent us in third spaces – usually digital – but in the future, they promise to be so much more than an icon on your computer screen. They will be able to transport our physicality to anywhere in the world. Imagine: distance could no longer be a barrier that holds us back.
Our $10M ANA Avatar XPRIZE will be awarded to the teams of innovators that can create an avatar system that accelerates this future, transporting human presence to a remote location in real-time. Forget avatars as you once knew them, this will be an advanced and integrated piece of technology that can not just convey human physicality from one side of the world to the other, but convey sensory information too – from sight to touch (and maybe even scent!).
Vitally, it will pave the way for avatar tech to be rolled out widely as a powerful tool for building greater human connection across time, space, and cultural differences. But how, exactly, you ask? Here are three key ways that avatar tech could transform our lives in the not so distant future...
First, we had the internet, then we had the Smart Phone. Soon, avatars will provide the intimacy of personal interaction even when you're far away from someone – a hug with a family member or a handshake with a colleague. Parents traveling for work will be able to play with their kids remotely, while lovers in long-distance relationships will be able to hold hands and take a walk together.
The avatar system that can achieve this will not just successfully let the operator connect with others physically, but give that operator the ability to feel personally connected with an environment by engaging the senses and allowing the operator to interact with it. A combination of haptics technology, AR, VR, robotics, and AI will make it feel like you’re right there.
Perception of the environment will be based on a set of sensors to achieve this simulation of near-real presence – 3D visual, 3D auditory, tactile, temperature and humidity, wind, and smell could all potentially fuse together to provide a rich definition of the environment. So, wave goodbye to back to back Zoom calls, the future of communications is much more exciting and engaging!
In 2030, we could be using avatars to transport critical skills and expertise, in real-time, across the globe – especially in emergencies. Doctors, teachers, firefighters, and business services could share skills across oceans, or even send those skills into space.
“Nurses are overwhelmed with all they have to do even when there is no pandemic, and this means lesser and lesser face time with patients,” explains Dilip Patel, one of the judges on the ANA Avatar XPRIZE. “Avatars can assist nurses and also provide more face time between patients and family members. Often times the best medicine is human – via Avatar – contact, particularly family and friends.”
The healthcare industry actually already has the resources to develop an infrastructure for this technology, says Dilip. Think of current health insurance covering mobile scooters for the elderly that need them for mobility. In the future, it could be Avatars covered by these kinds of insurance policies.
And when it comes to disaster recovery, instead of sending human first responders into danger zones, we could let the avatars do the dirty work. “Think of a disaster like Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster or fighting a forest fire in California,” urges Dilip, explaining that it would be much safer to send an avatar into these kinds of environments than a human.
This idea could even be extended into an exploration of remote sites, he adds.
Exploration and tourism
Soon, avatars will allow humans to explore places otherwise too difficult, or impossible to reach, and enable us to experience it as if we were there ourselves. This is already possible with the likes of deep-sea exploration, or robotics sent into space. But we can hugely improve this technology and the agency that humans have over it.
Furthermore, if we can create tourism avatar systems that can be practically brought to market, travel would totally open up – we could transcend pandemics, costs, time limitations, and physical limitations to explore the world. Case in point: a big part of the reason ANA airline sponsored the ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition is that one of their goals is to make travel across the world more accessible.
This could, of course, have positive effects on the environment too, allowing us to travel more but with less of a carbon footprint, and potentially explore world heritage sites without causing them distress or destruction.
So, next time you’re sitting at home missing travel because it’s been halted due to the pandemic, picture yourself in the near future, logging in to an avatar, and appearing at the entrance of Ephesus City in Turkey, or arriving at the Galapagos Islands, shared Dilip.
Your tour guide greets you with a handshake that you feel in your own hand as you also experience the breeze and the temperature on your skin. The smell of local food wafts into your nostrils as you begin to navigate the environment in 3D with a 360-stereo view through your headset. You’ll even be able to pick up the rubble or sand from the ground and run it through your hands. Hit the souvenir shop, pay with bitcoin, and it will soon be mailed to you.
Oh, and don’t forget to take a selfie.
The $10M ANA Avatar XPRIZE aims to create an Avatar System that can transport human presence to a remote location in real-time. Find out more at avatar.xprize.org.
Curious about how haptics in avatar tech could transform our lives for the better? Read our 5 ideas here.