A montage of 6 avatars from Ready Player Me, Zoom, Animaze, Meta, Nintendo, and Second Life
Avatars from Ready Player Me, Zoom, Animaze, Meta, Nintendo, and Second Life

We’re in the midst of a convergence of technologies that affords us an opportunity to mix up how we gather in on-line spaces. Video conferencing has become standard and software has become advanced enough to use a single, relatively cheap camera to track our facial expressions and movements. You no longer have to succumb to the stare of the webcam, you can represent yourself as a number of avatars that are you without being you.

Pre-pandemic video calls were reserved for big, all-hands type affairs or fancy corporate boardrooms with expensive tracking cameras. Suggesting that a long distance meeting use video was met with “do we really need that?” and “oh I hate my webcam.”  Remote meetings were the domain of the conference call on phones that started with a “P.” One sweeping threat to public health and a few years later, video is now the default and “are you still there?” has been replaced with “you’re on mute.”

This, of course, is not without issues. Video calls are exhausting. I truly feel for people that still need to attend back to back to back meetings… their webcams staring at them relentlessly… the other participants making not-quite-eye contact with them for hours on end.

There’s a better way…but, it’s off-putting to some and slightly uncomfortable to the rest. Like purple hair in an IBM boardroom. The benefit of the video call is that thin feeling that we’re all together in the same space. We can vaguely pick up on some of the visual cues that make up the majority of our communication even if we do feel like we’re on stage for the entire meeting. A quick search for “zoom fatigue” returns countless articles and studies about the draining effect of the video call. There’s nowhere to hide. You are on 100% of the time.

Back in the early days of the pandemic there were quite a few attempts to help mitigate the fatigue. Little virtual spaces like Gather and Spatial Chat or alternative group video apps like Around were created to help keep the feeling of togetherness without the oppressive feeling of constant video surveillance. Here’s a throwback to 2021 from The Guardian on meeting in virtual spaces. These are great options and I loved playing with all of them but getting an entire organization to move to a new platform is, to put it nicely, difficult. Like most new tech you need to meet people where they already are.

So, let’s talk about avatars.

Put aside any of the fun filters that are built into some video conferencing software. Amusing, yes, especially when a lawyer turns into a cat, but those aren’t the thing. An avatar is a representation of you that moves when you move, reacts when you react, talks when you talk, and stares at the camera on your behalf. It’s a compromise between seeing actual you and your low res thumbnail because you’ve turned the camera off. There are only a few options for inserting an avatar into a traditional video call (I’ll leave full on virtual world meetings for another post) and most of them use a stylized avatar and this is where the problem seems to arise.

  • Animaze
  • Meta (only for Meta’s apps)
  • Zoom (only for Zoom and not available in the web version)

We’re still adjusting to hybrid work and constant video calls and how it’s all supposed to go and what to expect. We’re still building social norms around video call etiquette and introducing a virtual representation of you challenges some of these fresh new norms that we’re just getting settled with. The attempts to create photo-realistic, three dimensional avatars of ourselves are currently more disconcerting than the toons and while they’ll get better and more lifelike I’d argue that a stylized avatar makes it clear to the rest of your meeting group that you are, in fact, using an avatar. There will come a time when a virtual clone of you will be convincing enough to pass as actual you and that will require a whole new set of norms.

Should you use an avatar all the time? Certainly not yet but also if you’re interviewing for a job or having a first meeting with a client, best to stick with your meatspace self. Once you’ve established a relationship or you have a regularly scheduled meeting at your 9 to 5, introduce the idea of using your avatar and give them a heads up the first time you plan on using it.

Screenshot of a chart from the 2024 Tech Trends Report by the Future Today Institute. A chart highlights various aspects of the "meta verse" and when they will become regularly used.
from The Future Today Institute’s 2024 Tech Trends Report

As I cobbled this post together I was picking through the 2024 Tech Trends Report from the Future Today Institute. Low and behold they addressed this very thing in their extensive report! You’ll notice that “normalized use of avatars in collaboration platforms” is forecast to “have impact” in 5 to 9 years. Best start now so you’re well practiced. Meeting with others as an avatar provides a tiny bit of cover while still conveying “you” to your colleagues. There’s less pressure to be locked onto your screen for the hour. You’re not distracted by your own appearance (oh come on we’ve all checked ourselves out in meetings). If you’re an introvert having a thin layer of anonymity between you and the screen is an immense relief and frees you up to more actively participate.

You’re not convinced? That’s fine. We’ll get increasingly more comfortable with avatars in our meetings in the near future and FTI probably has the time frame for “normalization” right. In the mean time, try it. Pick a low stakes call and try on virtual you. See how it feels and how your colleagues react. Just start with something that resembles you and save the cat for bumbling lawyers.

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