Oculus is beginning to roll out redesigned avatars that are more expressive and customizable than those that launched in 2016. They’ll appear starting today in just a few games for the Quest VR platform, including Epic Roller Coasters, PokerStarsVR, and Topgolf with Pro Putt. Soon, they’ll appear in Synth Riders, and later in the year, a new game called ForeVR Bowling will feature them.
The avatars launching today, starting with those few select games, seem far more fleshed out. They’ll have legs in the editor, for one (though they won’t yet appear on your avatar in VR). The new avatar editor apparently allows for a quintillion possible combinations of hair, eyes, body type, facial hair, piercings, clothing, and other features. There’s no gender toggle, nor are there a pre-baked batch of face presets. Instead, the editor lets you dive into each facial feature, down to wrinkles, nose, and makeup. It’s like a glorified character creator from an RPG. You can make an avatar that looks similar to you or just one that’s aspirational, reflecting how you want to be seen in social VR spaces.
By the end of 2021, Oculus will have opened its new avatar SDK to all developers, and these VR personas will be supported in Facebook Horizon, the company’s own expansive social VR playground. Though, games are just one application for these refreshed avatars. Oculus says the avatar you create will eventually appear in some form within the Facebook app, Messenger, Instagram, and more, but only if you choose to. Oculus wouldn’t divulge any specifics on how exactly your avatar will appear in those apps or when. “We’re at the start of a long journey,” Mike Howard, product manager for avatars at Oculus, told The Verge.
Avatars first launched on the Oculus Rift platform in 2016 as “monochrome busts with floating hands,” as my colleague Adi Robertson put it. Howard shared that all of the avatars from the early days had eyewear on because they weren’t trying to simulate realistic facial features, particularly the eyes. Hand movement was the big breakthrough at the time, since Oculus had launched its Touch controllers for the Rift.
The design of these new avatars builds off the learnings from the now-defunct Facebook Spaces and the aforementioned Horizon experience that’s currently in an invite-only beta — both of which opted for a more welcoming, cartoon-y look than the more realistic Expressive Avatars that Oculus showed off in 2018. Howard told The Verge that these new avatars are oriented in their design toward delight with attributes from animation techniques. The expressions look a little exaggerated, and they’re about as harmless-looking as Memoji. They’re cute.
Despite their unassuming look, Oculus studied behavioral traits, like how often people usually blink and the speed at which their eyes shift around to look at points of interest, to make the new avatars seem more grounded in reality. It worked to make a compelling eye gaze, even though Oculus’ current headsets don’t track what your eyes are doing. Perhaps the next-generation Quest headset will, though. Mark Zuckerberg recently talked about eye tracking in an interview with The Information, saying, “One of the things that I’m really excited about for future versions is getting eye tracking and face tracking in, because if you’re really excited about social presence, you want to make sure that the device has all the sensors to really kind of animate realistic avatars so you can communicate well like that.”
As for making the rest of your body move in a believable way, Oculus is leaning on machine learning to make your arm and head movements look less stilted. It trained a prediction model that can guess your shoulder and elbow positions based on where the headset and Touch controllers are located.
You can create a new avatar within the Quest and Quest 2 headsets by clicking into your profile. For Rift users connected to a PC, the new avatar editor will be located within the floating row of navigation buttons near the bottom of your field of view.