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MDE#08 Avatars & Identity
Small features that matter 🔍
⏳ 5 min read
The transition towards the metaverse is becoming a reality. Meetings are soon to incorporate a feature that is just the tip of the iceberg for what immersive meetings will become. Starting in May, Microsoft Teams will enable interactive avatars to be displayed when your camera is off.
Wait…? When the camera is off? Right, when you don’t want to appear on screen you’ll be able to customize an avatar to your image and liking so that it stands in front of the camera when you don’t feel like it—instead of having your picture or name.
But why does this small feature matter? 🤔
This small feature says a lot. It explicitly shows the direction that online meetings are going to take in the years ahead of us.
Fostered by the partnership Microsoft-Meta, this feature is a brilliant way to make co-exist 3D avatars and streamlined video in the same video-call. It is a smart move towards immersive meetings. Why? Because immersive meetings will mainly make use of 3D avatars. In this way, we are already getting used to interacting with avatars in a regular Teams meeting.
It is these small incremental changes that, placed strategically, show the direction that big tech companies are taking for the metaverse. In this newsletter, I refer to the metaverse as a vision for the next wave of computing that is ubiquitous, seamless, and immersive—making use of AR and VR technologies.
Incremental change fosters adoption
One of the key learnings from my PhD was that for innovation to succeed, change has to happen gradually. Step by step. So that change becomes almost invisible. Seamless.
The emoji example. Remember how emoticons evolved from the simple characters on a keyboard in the 1990s :-) to the popular yellow rounded emojis in the 2010s 🙂?
The aesthetics became three-dimensional through time and even enabled refined customization options such as hairstyle, skin color, etc. In 2018, we witnessed the appearance of the so-called Memojis from Apple.
In the end, Memojis have become popular after an evolution and gradual adoption that has spanned almost three decades. Probably, if they had appeared in the early 90s, people would have laughed at them, and maybe they would have been labeled as being for children. Instead, the gradual adoption of emojis fostered adoption and, to a certain extent, consensus. To the point that emojis of all kinds are widely accepted in informal adult conversations. End of the emoji parenthesis. 😉
Summary: gradual change fosters adoption and to a certain extent, consensus. Now let’s be critical of what this implies.
But why should we care?
Mixing 3D avatars and videos of people in the same call is a smart move towards immersive meetings. In a few years we will get used to it, as with the phenomenon of the adoption of emojis.
Now, let’s look at it with a critical lens. 🔍
When we choose to be represented by an avatar in an online meeting, we are giving power and credibility to 3D avatars. Without appropriate authentication systems that verify the identity of the person behind the camera, how will we know if the avatar is truly the person behind the camera?
As of 2023, we may say “switch on the camera” to verify the identity of the person behind the avatar. However, in immersive meetings in the metaverse, there may not be cameras to be able to make this quick verification. Implementing such features should open a debate on increasing the security of our identity online.🔥
And this is what we are doing here with this blog post.
The real danger to me is the implicit consensus that such features may bring into our unconscious: getting used to seeing avatars that represent humans and act on behalf of humans will become a new normal with time.
This is paving the way towards giving credibility to virtual representations of humans (aka: avatars). In such process, we may lose the ability to question and to discern who is behind avatars… 💥 💥
Will that be a human acting on her/his behalf? Will that be a human impersonating someone? Or an AI?
AIs present risks as chatbots or conversational agents are becoming more and more powerful to the point that they will be proficient at manipulating humans towards a targeted goal they have been programmed for.
In the words of Geoffrey Hinton, known as the “godfather of AI”: If AI gets to be much smarter than us, it will be very good at manipulation because it will have learned that from us [humans].
So what can we do?
I don’t have a solution. 😵
Soon 3D avatars will become a new normal.
For now, keep on questioning who is behind the screen. 🔍
Disclaimer: Although I took the example of Microsoft Teams because it is a widely known platform, this is equally applicable to avatars in all other platforms. If Microsoft had not implemented this feature, another company would have.
News of the past month: I attended Laval Virtual in France, an XR conference focused on the French and European XR ecosystems. Below, I am sharing a fun picture sponsored by Microsoft (ha!) with the founder of Lynx, a French company focused on Mixed Reality GDPR-compliant headsets. Promising!
Thanks for reading until the end! I am looking forward to having you as part of this expanding community. Just click below 👇 to keep updated on the next ones.