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Are Facebook’s Codec Avatars Too Realistic? Experts Say It’s a Good Thing 2021

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Key Takeaways

Facebook is working on virtual reality avatars that can mimic a person's social expressions. While it may seem too real, experts think this is a great win for the VR industry. As additional big tech companies invest in VR tech, more users will become confident in using VR, experts say. Pixabay

Facebook plans to launch virtual reality avatars that will incorporate users' real-life social expressions, which may seem a little too real and intrusive for some. 

The tech company has been working on its virtual reality products for quite some time now. It even launched Facebook Reality Labs to bring researchers, developers, and engineers under one umbrella to focus on the company's virtual and augmented reality technologies.

One focus of the lab has been creating Codec Avatars, a project in which Facebook uses machine learning to collect and recreate human social expressions to add to virtual reality avatars. 

"People already behave badly in VR. Since the dawn of VR Chat, users have experienced harassment at the hands of others. Often this is targeted at people with female-presenting voices," Joel Garcia, technology director at Urban District Realty, told Ach5 in an email interview.

"As disturbing as this is in a virtual world with cartoon avatars, it terrifies me to think of a virtual world where users must present as themselves, and the affronts of these bad actors become even more targeted and personal."

What's So Real About These Avatars?

Yaser Sheikh, the director of research at Facebook Reality Labs in Pittsburgh, is leading the tech company's Codec Avatars project. He envisions this project as the start of a whole new virtual reality world, and wants people to be able to communicate as their most real selves via avatars.

Facebook's planned lifelike avatars wouldn't just pick up a user's social expressions; they also essentially would mimic that person's entire face. Users still would need to wear a virtual reality headset as their avatars communicate in the digital realm.

Unlike Garcia, Floreo CEO Vijay Ravindran only sees good things coming out of Facebook's work with Codec Avatars. He sees the value in using VR as a first line of communication in the future. 

"I think what Facebook is looking to do is really creating digital personas," Floreo CEO Vijay Ravindran told Ach5 in a phone interview.

"Overall, I think those are great because part of what holds virtual reality back as a medium for social gatherings and a way to build community is the ability to read body language and facial expressions.”

Virtual reality already can change how people interact socially, but experts are eager to see how a project of this nature can affect people emotionally.

When Garcia recently was playing a few online games, he said he enjoyed the social aspect more because he felt like VR allowed him to make better friends faster. After all, they were playing chess or sailing together. There was no agenda, but there was also no awkwardness interacting with someone online during these activities. 

"While I'm sure there will be a lot of conversations around privacy and allowing users to have the right amount of anonymity, I think a capability like this could really add to creating a more connected, emotional community environment," Ravindran said. 

What's Next for Super-Realistic Avatars?

Facebook's Codec Avatars are still in the phase of mimicking facial expressions. Eventually, the tech company wants to capture a person's full body language, including unique qualities, like how a person walks or uses hand gestures.

"Overall, I think those are great because part of what holds virtual reality back as a medium...is the ability to read body language and facial expressions.”

Despite some doubts, both Ravindran and Garcia agree that Facebook's Codec Avatars project has the ability to change the future of virtual reality tech. 

"Facebook's avatar system is the kind of thing that could make virtual reality meetings the new standard," Garcia said.

"I would imagine that after perfecting the Codec system, the next step would be to allow users to change their clothes and hair, then nose and eye color, and before long, anyone could look like anyone. There is something scary in that, and also something liberating."