“Legs,” Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg exclaimed during his 2022 Meta Connect keynote. The camera then zoomed back to show his Horizon World avatar standing, actually standing. Truly, it’s a new era.
Meta’s Reality Labs showed off its first preview of Horizon World’s new avatars, with Zuckerberg himself again forcing his “I was human” image to be the face of Meta’s attempt to create a live-in VR environment. The CEO said these newly redesigned avatars have “their own Meta style to them,” though it remains unclear how these avatars really stand above the shoulders of similar experiences like PlayStation Home (which came out in 2008).
Zuckerberg called legs “the most requested feature on our roadmap,” as he and Aigerim Shorman, Meta’s general manager of avatars and identity, lifted their legs up and down like they were just getting used to the concept of gravity. The reason why legs were so hard in the first place, according to Zuckerberg and Shorman, was because “legs are hard.” He added “that’s why other virtual reality systems don’t have them either.”
That’s patently untrue. VRChat has had legs and more advanced full body tracking for years. Still, Zuckerberg said his company has worked hard to create systems to accurately simulate arms and legs in virtual space, since users might feel odd if their VR limbs bend in unnatural ways.
“Your brain is much more likely to accept a rendering of a part of you as long as its in the correct position,” Zuckerberg said. He added that the biggest difficulty of getting legs to work was with occlusion, or the ability for the headset to know where your legs are. He said an AI model is needed to recreate where legs are when they are blocked from the headset’s sensors by an intervening object.
Meta’s head said these avatars should be available “later next year” on phones, VR headsets, “and more.” Aigerim said their company’s plan was to allow avatars to be used across all of Meta’s apps, which includes Facebook and Instagram, as well as in virtual reality. Avatars will be rearing their heads in stickers in Facebook and Instagram messenger, and there are plans to somehow include them in WhatsApp. Avatars will also be usable inside video chat in messenger. Zuck even showed off avatars dancing in Instagram reels, but it remains to be seen if that will increase Reels’ clout among the app’s most dedicated users.
Legs are coming to Horizon Worlds first before they’ll be included in Meta’s other apps.
Aside from legs, the graphics on Meta’s avatars have improved measurably from the balloon heads and dead eyes of the previous incarnation. Zuckerberg boasted these avatars were the most expressive of their kind, though the pre-recorded demo showed off in the keynote may not be the most accurate display of the app’s capabilities. The CEO promised that cameras will detect whether users wink or show outward expressions, then replicate that on avatars themselves. He added these avatars use AI to generate their movements.
The company also mentioned it will be releasing the Avatar Store, launching first in VR, later this year. This will allow users to spend real money on creator made digital goods for their in-app facsimiles. Of course, Meta also promoted more brand tie-ins with the Avatar Store, such as with Netflix, because nothing screams individuality like a Stranger Things t-shirt you bought for your fake human counterpart.
Toward the end of the keynote, Michael Abash, the chief scientist at Reality Labs, said the ultimate goal is avatars that are “photorealistic.” Why? Abash said its because users need to feel at a “gut level” that they are with other people. He added that the end goal we should be trying to reach is interacting with the metaverse “using personalized AI” that adapts to users and proactively understands inputs.
The company also showed off so-called “codec avatars” that use full-body cameras to track users. Abash also mentioned they were considering encrypting avatars and tying these real-seeming versions of people to a dedicated account for the sake of security. This does bring up an interesting point: what should happen if people eventually learn to hack and steal people’s virtual avatars? Though all that technology seems far, far in the future, especially considering the company only recently figured out, ahem, “legs.”