Wanted: Realistic avatars for virtual reality meetings

AI and a screenshot can now bring you to life in virtual reality.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

ObEN co-founder Adam Zheng and his avatar.

Among the many touted applications for virtual reality in the enterprise, team collaboration is the one that seems to be gaining traction fastest. The idea is that members of distributed teams can put on headsets and beam into virtual meetings. 

That sounds a little prosaic, and it won't replace video conferencing anytime soon, but VR really does offer some powerful collaboration potential. The immersive environment allows team members not only to meet virtually, but also to share and work on rich 3D presentations and data visualizations in real-time. Designers can sculpt virtual clay together, and architects can bring blueprints to life and make design decisions collaboratively and on the fly.

For the experience to feel realistic (and not, frankly, completely silly), developers need to solve a crucial but easy to overlook challenge: How to enable users to quickly create realistic avatars that don't look like pre-Pixar computer animation.

At this year's VR/AR/MR World expo, which wrapped up earlier this month Tokyo, Japanese communications giant SoftBank demoed a VR communication and social platform called Epic Play Live. The most compelling feature is the ability to personalize realistic avatars.

To develop the technology, SoftBank teamed up with three newer industry players: ObEN, an AI company specializing in personalized AI technology, Salin, an AR/VR social platform provider, and wrnch, which captures and digitizes human motion. 

"VR is an incredibly versatile platform that can transcend space and distance, bringing us closer together in a new virtual medium," said ObEN CEO Nikhil Jain. "The technology depicted in movies, where colleagues all over the world can have virtual meetings as if they were in the same room, or friends hang out in a virtual clubhouse when they are hundreds of miles apart, that is what we are building with Epic Play Live."

To create 3D avatars, users start with a selfie and a short voice recording made on their mobile device. ObEN's avatars are designed to look and sound like each individual user. Motion capture technology from wrnch brings the avatars to life in Salin's VR environment. Users are able to see, speak to, and interact with the lifelike counterparts of their colleagues, friends or families, with movements captured in real-time from their smartphone camera.

The platform is part of the SoftBank Innovation Program. It's only a prototype, but a future is likely in offing when it will become standard to send a 3D delegate into virtual reality. One of the primary roadblocks VR faces is that right now it's primarily an individual experience.

Once VR becomes another social channel, adoption is expected to surge.

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