If you’ve ever seen my TikTok channel, you will have come across Bernard Marr 2.0. He looks and sounds a lot like me, but he is, in fact, my digital twin – an avatar powered by AI and machine learning.
Avatars are our digital representatives in the virtual world. The characters we control in video games can be thought of as avatars, and increasingly we will adopt avatars to represent us as we shop, socialize, learn and work in the connected online environments that we are calling the metaverse.
Bernard 2.0 has my face and voice because he was built by Synthesia from images and recordings and stitched together using machine learning. He presents videos for me – not necessarily because I couldn’t present them myself, but because it’s a cool thing to do, and the technology is a lot of fun.
And one day, in the future, as AI becomes more and more capable, he might do a whole lot more. He could give talks, teach classes, conduct meetings and seminars on my behalf – and possibly even write my books!
In fact, it’s possible that one day, everyone might have their own digital avatar that they can send off into the digital domain to do whatever they need to get done. Even today, we are seeing them used in a growing number of ways, such as:
A number of companies use digital avatars to carry out customer service – they can either be directly controlled by one person, for one-to-one interaction, or they could be powered by chatbots, enabling them to handle many customer inquiries simultaneously.
They can also add a human touch to synthetic video – appearing in content such as corporate training videos and how-to guides in place of more expensive and unpredictable human actors.
Digital avatars have also been used in healthcare and therapeutic settings – such as to teach social and interaction skills to children with autism.
They are also becoming widely used in media and entertainment. Businessman Alan Sugar appeared as an avatar to set the contestants’ tasks in the most recent UK series of The Apprentice, and Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams appeared as an avatar to promote her role as a global ambassador for sustainability for H&M.
How to create your own avatar today
There are a number of tools and services that anyone can use right now if they want to get started with creating their own digital avatar.
Traditionally, digital avatars can be as simple as a 2D image used to identify us on social media or in an online chatroom.
The next step in their evolution came with the arrival of 3D online environments such as Second Life (in many ways an early prototype metaverse) and later platforms such as Meta Horizon Worlds.
These days, however, they can also be super-realistic looking – like my own, which was built from video images and is almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
Each has its advantages. More realistic avatars might create more immersive experiences for viewers or anyone interacting with them. Simpler ones are far quicker and cheaper to create and can also be more flexible. For example, you can quickly change their clothes, accessories, or hairstyles to suit different purposes or environments!
A number of providers offer the service. Synthesia allows you to create very realistic, high-end avatars for use in synthetic video content.
Ready Player Me is a service for creating full-body, 3D avatars that can then be exported into a range of different metaverse environments, including VRChat and Somnium Space.
Bitmoji is a tool that has been around for a while and lets anyone create cartoon avatars. Using a software development toolkit, they can then be imported into a large number of games and apps, allowing users to take their personality with them as they move between virtual worlds.
You can even use a service like Tafi that lets you dress up and decorate your personalized avatar with branded items from global names, including DC Comics, Coca Cola, and Champion. Accessories are sold as NFTs, allowing you to show off the fact that your digital twin is wearing something authentic and unique!
As the technology used to create avatars improves, we can expect them to start taking on a life of their own both inside of, as well as outside, the virtual world.
One of the most interesting aspects of the metaverse concept is the ability to blend the virtual and the real. Soon we won’t just be limited to creating avatars that look and sound like us – we can expect them to become an extension of our personality that we can use them to express ourselves in any way we want. It’s not inconceivable that my avatar will one day appear as a hologram to give a presentation or teach a class in the real world.
Looking further ahead, the words that it speaks might not even be anything I have ever said myself – using AI, it could formulate speeches and lessons all by itself! One way to imagine this is to think of avatars evolving from being puppets under our direct control, into autonomous beings capable of acting in ways that, though informed by us, are all their own.
Early steps in this direction can already be seen in projects such as the partnership between GeeneeAR and Ready Player Me, which lets anyone overlay computer-generated avatar images over footage of themselves in real-life.
This blending of the real and virtual is where much of the creative value at the heart of metaverse and web3 lies. We know that even if it’s possible, people don’t always necessarily want to spend all of their time in virtual worlds. With avatars, we don’t have to – they can be our representatives in those worlds, leveraging the convenience, flexibility, and instantaneousness of the digital domain for the benefit of our real-world selves.
It’s also interesting to consider that this “me 2.0” is, unlike the real me, to all intents and purposes, immortal – meaning it can go on learning, interacting, and teaching long after the real me has shuffled off this mortal coil. The ethical and philosophical implications of this are already under discussion.
As the real world and the virtual world grow ever closer, it’s likely that avatars will play an increasingly important part in our lives. Through them, we will be able to spend more time with friends and loved ones, even when we are physically many miles apart. Geography will cease to be a barrier to what we can learn and experience. Virtual reality and augmented reality will make these experiences seem more real and immersive than ever before. It’s certainly a future I’m looking forward to seeing!