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Why Are Photographic Avatars Vital for Work in the Metaverse?

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The notion of the metaverse opens up all-new possibilities in communication and collaboration, especially now after the pandemic.

When we first switched to remote work in 2020, video calls and conferences seemed the best possible option – but gradually cracks are beginning to appear.

Research suggests that Zoom fatigue is taking its toll due to the adverse effects of prolonged self-video exposure. A recent survey found that nearly half (49%) of employees are exhausted by having their webcam on during meetings; just 25% said that they weren’t exhausted at all.

Yet, video meetings remain one of the best ways to maintain person-to-person engagement – through eye contact, body language communication, subtle gestures, and facial expressions that reflect empathy.

What if we could bring all of the intimacy of webcam-enabled calls into a digital yet non-video environment? This is exactly what the metaverse promises to deliver.

In the metaverse, employees would be able to use their digital avatars (preferably photographic avatars) to create their authentic presence in a virtual workplace.

Photographic avatars, specifically, have enormous potential to recreate lifelike work surroundings in the metaverse that would have a lesser cognitive burden than current ways of remote working.

Photographic or photorealistic avatars can be defined as virtual representations of our real-world self that are based on photographic scans and 3D models of how we look, reflecting our unique physical and anatomical makeup.

Photographic avatars typically feature slightly lesser customisation than other types, e.g., your average gaming avatar.

The idea is to bring your self and personal identity as it exists in the real world to a virtual space to provide continuity and consistency for you and your co-workers.

While photographic avatars have been around for a while, they have gained momentum and seen mainstream adoption outside the gaming world in the last five years.

Advancements in packaged and affordable AI mean that anyone can create a highly realistic avatar of themselves without complex coding.

Recently, in July 2021, Snapchat came out with its new 3D Bitmoji avatars, where the user’s 3D avatar reflects their facial expressions and hand gestures just like an emoji.

Microsoft is rolling out a similar service for Teams users, with near-photographic avatars that reflect an employee’s expressions and movements without having to turn on the webcam.

And Facebook (now Meta) has probably made the most progress in this direction. The company started working on its 3D VR avatars in 2019, and recently demoed the results at Connect 2021.

Initially, Meta thought that they would reach photographic or photorealistic avatars in the next five years or so – a timeline that’s now accelerated due to a veritable VR explosion during COVID-19.

Meta’s pixel codec technology uses incredibly sophisticated computer vision and machine learning to create digital avatars that are virtually indistinguishable from your real-world appearance.

Photographic avatars make a major difference when working in the metaverse. Here are its key benefits:

1. You can communicate via facial expressions

This type of avatars (as opposed to 2D or custom design ones) can replicate and mirror the user’s facial expressions in real-time.

Since employees will already be wearing VR headsets to work in the metaverse, the avatars use the headset’s powerful sensors to capture, generate, and dynamically represent our facial expressions.

You can smile at your co-workers, frown to subtly show disagreement, convey confusion without interrupting someone, and much more.

2. It improves work culture and employee satisfaction

Photographic avatars aren’t without some customisation capabilities. For instance, you can change your hair and accessories on a daily basis, just like you do in a physical office scenario.

Small features like these go a long way in enriching the remote working experience without requiring a lot of time or effort from employees.

Also, a large portion of your workforce will appreciate the ability to opt out of webcam mandatory meetings, which is currently the case for 61% of employees as per the survey we cited.

3. Photographic avatars are essential for diversity in the workplace

In the long term, you cannot have a diverse, inclusive, and psychologically safe remote work environment without photographic or photorealistic avatars.

These reflect different employees’ unique physical traits such as skin colour, bone structure, body type, height, disability, and more to give you an accurate representation of diversity even in the virtual world.

4. Avatars act as an anchor for interoperability

From a technical perspective, avatars are key to interoperability in the metaverse as they are your one constant while navigating multiple virtual worlds, platforms, tools, and objects.

Photographic avatars aid in identity-based authentication in the metaverse and prevent the risk of fraudulent access.

This is a vital use case for work and collaboration-related scenarios, as you could potentially use your avatars for secure file exchange, to authenticate passwords, to access digital vaults, etc.

5. It makes working in the metaverse more flexible

This is the primary short-term benefit of using a photographic avatar to work in the metaverse (or, indeed, in any virtual space).

As there’s no need for a webcam, employees are untethered from their workstations and can participate in calls and meetings with ease, even when on the move.

The calling experience isn’t limited by the quality of your smartphone’s front cam or internet speeds.

There are several companies currently working on photographic avatars for work and non-work users. Among these, Meta has made significant progress, but their take is yet to reach general availability.

On the other hand, Microsoft recently announced Mesh for Teams, which replaces the traditional webcam feed with a 3D, photorealistic avatar. You can sign up for the service here.

Finally, you could also explore third-party avatar creation platforms that are technology agnostic. Avatar SDK, Ready Player Me, and Pinscreen are some of the more compelling options out there.

However, do keep in mind that photographic avatar service providers will need to collect and leverage some personal data to make the technology effective and reliable.

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