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Avatar Kinect Puts Your Best Face Forward

Avatar Kinect Puts Your Best Face Forward

Avatar Kinect allows for richer virtual interactions by tracking the actual facial expressions and gestures of users and letting their avatars express them on screen -- or not. "With an avatar, people can choose which visual details they want to transmit," observed UVa prof Kamin Whitehouse. The technology could go way beyond gaming -- bringing dramatic changes to business teleconferencing, for example.

By Mike Martin
01/06/11 2:50 PM PT

"Avatar" movie director James Cameron couldn't have scripted a better keynote speech for Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Wednesday that Kinect and Xbox will connect with consumers via avatars, transporting Xbox Live Gold subscribers into the chatty, motion-savvy, virtual world of Avatar Kinect.

"We will make entertainment more interactive, more social, and more fun for everyone, and we'll do it like no one else can," said Ballmer, speaking on-screen as a slendered-down avatar version of himself.

Currently, Kinect listens to your voice and tracks your body movements, avatar Ballmer added. "But what about your facial movements? Now, Kinect can track features like your smile, your laugh, and even the raise of your eyebrows."

The rest of Ballmer's presentation shows young people chatting, gesticulating, and Kinect-ing with reasonable-likeness avatars in that all-important living room environment that may, in time, expand to other virtual arenas.

"At home or in the office, consumers and professionals increasingly expect technologies to make the world come to them," said Greenberg Glusker entertainment and intellectual property attorney Ken Basin. "In that sense, the Avatar Kinect is definitely part of a broader trend that goes far beyond the tag of gaming."

AvaStar Power

The idea of using avatars in an idealized virtual setting impresses University of Virginia assistant computer science professor Kamin Whitehouse, who researches motion sensing and co-chairs the International Conference on Information Processing in Sensor Networks.

"Avatar Kinect is exciting because it allows people to meet face to face with complete strangers, without revealing too much visual detail," Whitehouse told TechNewsWorld. "With an avatar, people can choose which visual details they want to transmit."

Doctoral students in management information systems and decision theory are hosting a "Kinect Social" next week at the home of Iowa State University business professor Brian Mennecke to discuss the very issue of avatar relations, Mennecke told TechNewsWorld.

Call it the larger socio-scientific implications of Avatar Kinect -- a theory Mennecke and colleagues have developed called "Embodied Social Presence theory" -- "which highlights the important role of embodied representations of avatars in virtual worlds," Mennecke explained.

In the all-important living room, Mennecke sees both "huge advantages" and disadvantages for Avatar Kinect.

"Many people are so used to using controllers or a mouse that hand gestures seem awkward and tiring," he explained. "Nevertheless, the overall experience is very engaging, and will make this type of device a staple in people's homes."

Out of the Living Room?

"Avatar Kinect is a creative tool that lets you create unique content and socialize with friends and family in a new fun way, whether it's getting together to chat or reenact your favorite movie lines, "Microsoft spokesperson JessieDiMariano told TechNewsWorld.

Competition for the home entertainment space is ferocious. On the other hand, commercial applications are wide open -- and should accommodate Avatar Kinect in the future.

"Avatar Kinect isn't quite ready for virtual business meetings yet, but the potential is clear," UVa's Whitehouse explained. "You wouldn't want to use avatars to videoconference with your grandchild, but they would make it easier to have a 'remote presence' in long-distance business meetings. People don't always want to be on camera for hours on end during long conference calls, especially when calling from home."

"Incredibly interesting," is how Greenberg Glusker's Basin -- who edits the law firm's aptly named entertainment blog, Law Law Land -- describes Avatar Kinect's commercial potential.

"Experience has shown that we are long past the point where we can regard innovations that come out of the gaming industry as mere niche or novelty technologies," Basin told TechNewsWorld. "I can imagine Avatar Kinect developing to allow for interactive presentations in which a speaker's avatar interacts in a way that a basic webcam view of a speaker never could."

Camera-driven video conference technology is "flat, with little potential to interact," noted ISU's Mennecke.

Based on his own videoconferencing research, Mennecke said an avatar with realistic gestures and features "adds a broader context for interaction, which creates a richer experience for the user. Especially when working on shared tasks, avatars will be very helpful in engaging each party."

For the time being, however, "Avatar Kinect seems to fall into a tough valley between hardcore gamers, tech enthusiasts, and less tech-savvy users," Basin explained. "But again, you can't discount the capacity of these technologies to morph in ways even their creators didn't anticipate, and really change the way we think about how we connect with people."


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