New research into virtual reality avatars
The Uncanny Valley is a concept hypothesised in the 1970s by robotics researcher Masahiro Mori at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Mori theorised that as robot technology became more human-looking, they would be more appealing to humans – but only up to a point. Once robots started to look human enough, that affinity would turn to feelings of alienation and even disgust. He used the example of prosthetic hands, but the same holds true for digital representations of humans like digital models and avatars.
The Aim of ALIVE
The aim of the ALIVE (Avatar Learning Impact assessment for Virtual Environments) project is to create digital avatars for use in VR settings that do not fall into the Uncanny Valley. Based at the University of Glasgow’s Advanced Research Centre, ALIVE uses Edify’s suite of VR technology to experiment with state-of-the-art realistic digital avatars created with the Unreal Metahumans package in educational settings.
Unreal Metahumans offers a number of benefits for VR settings beyond looking more realistic: one key benefit is that the tool makes it far easier to create realistic digital people. Whereas traditional 3D modelling of people is a difficult and labour-intensive task that requires specialist know-how and tools, Metahumans makes it far quicker and easier for users to create avatars that look and move like them.
What is Uncanny Valley
The Uncanny Valley poses a particular challenge for VR and other immersive technologies. At present, VR avatars – the 3D representations of humans that VR users use to move around and interact with one another and their virtual environments – can look clumsy and clunky, moving and gesturing unnaturally. Because VR avatars aren’t just a neutral, value-free way of communicating but send and can be perceived as messages in and of themselves, this makes it a lot harder for VR users to ‘believe’ in their virtual environments and experiences. The upshot of this is that Virtual Reality can start to feel a whole lot less, well, real. And the tendency of VR avatars to fall into the Uncanny Valley means that VR is less effective than it could be as an educational and communicative tool.
One area that could see a step-change is education and soft skill training. Educators and trainers are used to working with a number of cues from their audience, including nonverbal ones such as body language to tell if their audience are engaged and learning, if their students are overly stretched and they need to slow down, or if, conversely, their students need more of a challenge. While traditional VR avatars might not do a good job of communicating these nonverbal cues, the more realistic Metahumans avatars ALIVE is pioneering can. This makes training and teaching in virtual settings far more effective.
ALIVE is hoping to understand how these new and improved virtual avatars can contribute to virtual experiences by simulating real-life social situations and interactions more realistically. Research understanding and quantifying how humans respond to interactions in virtual settings has been sparse to date, but understanding how VR users conceive and interact with digital avatars is key to creating much more immersive experiences in Virtual Reality. Research on how people respond to virtual interactions and how to improve our ability to capture and convey facial expressions in VR add to the tapestry of communications that Virtual Reality offers.
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