A crucial step will be taken by Mark Zuckerberg’s business to make its virtual reality metaverse avatars more realistic: giving them legs.
Since Zuckerberg unveiled his ambitious metaverse plans almost a year ago, many have criticised the tech giant’s plans as unrealistic and made fun of the fact that the 3D digital avatars intended to mimic our bodies currently lack lower limbs. Zuckerberg is staking his company’s future on the idea that the next era of the internet will depend on virtual and augmented reality.
When Zuckerberg gleefully published a screenshot of his avatar on his Facebook page in August, he received online mockery for it.
Soon after, Zuckerberg stated that “significant graphic improvements” would be made to Meta’s avatars, and on Tuesday at the yearly Meta Connect developer event, he revealed that the metaverse will soon have legs.
“I realize you have been anticipating this. Everyone has been waiting for this,” a more appealing avatar of Zuckerberg stated during the presentation on Tuesday. But truly, since legs are difficult to build, other virtual reality systems also lack them.
The fact that Zuckerberg is now giving the metaverse’s legs priority demonstrates how important the general public’s perception of the metaverse is and suggests that overcoming the technology’s ostensibly straightforward but technically challenging visual issues may be the biggest obstacle to Meta’s success. Even while it creates a parallel universe, Meta wants to demonstrate that it is grounded in reality. Given that the tech giant’s stock has been falling precipitously for the past year and that many of its employees are rumoured to have doubted the company’s significant AR/VR bets, it is especially important for the business to get people enthused about the metaverse at this time.
The reason it’s been so difficult for Meta to recreate our legs in the metaverse is that currently, its AR/VR headsets only track upper-body movements like our hands and facial gestures. So the company currently has no way to know what our legs are doing when we strap on one of its headsets.
To be clear, avatars in Meta’s AR/VR products today, including the new high-end Quest Pro headset it just released, still don’t have legs. The company says it’s bringing legs to its social environment, Horizon Worlds, first, and then will expand to other products. But it’s unclear when exactly these legs will come. And it remains a major technical challenge to solve.
Zuckerberg said Meta will use predictive AI models to guess what our legs are doing based on our upper-body movements. No other popular AR/VR hardware maker has been able to do this yet. But it isn’t out of the realm of possibility for Meta, a company with one of the largest staffs of engineers in the world that is spending $10 billion a year on metaverse projects alone.
“With standalone virtual reality headsets, understanding your leg position is surprisingly difficult because of occlusion,” Zuckerberg explained about the technical challenge in the presentation. “So if your legs are under a desk or if your arms block your view of them, then your headset can’t see them directly, and you need to build an AI model to predict your whole body position.”
Meta says it’s not only improving avatars by adding legs, but that it will refine its visual graphics more broadly. The company said on Tuesday that its new high-end headset, the Quest Pro, has inward-facing head sensors to be able to track eye movements and facial expressions, allowing more lifelike expressions on avatars. A spokesperson also said that the company is adding “incremental updates to style and appearance of Meta Avatars over time,” including expressions as well as “depth,” “shading,” and more clothing and accessory options.
To be fair, part of what might have underwhelmed some critics about Meta’s AR/VR products so far is what gets lost in translation from the virtual to physical world. Meta’s AR/VR experiences feel more lifelike and impressive when you’re actually strapped into a headset, immersed in a 3D AR/VR world, than when you’re looking at a 2D screenshot of that environment on a computer screen.
It’s still key that Zuckerberg and his team figure out how to solve the avatar leg problem and how to improve avatar graphics overall quickly. Recent reporting from The Verge and the New York Times suggests that Meta is struggling to get its own employees spending time as avatars in its social VR/AR environment, Horizon Worlds. And while Meta announced a key partnership with fellow tech giant and VR/AR hardware rival Microsoft on October 11 to bring its popular software like Office 365 to Meta’s Quest Pro device, Meta has major competition looming on the horizon from Apple which is rumored to be working on its own headset.
If Meta can’t figure out something as outwardly simple as legs, and convince the public that the metaverse is worth diving into, the future of the company could be at risk. Which is why it’s smart that Zuckerberg gave in to the trolls today, and promised to give the people what they want no matter how technically complicated that might be.