Nintendo was the first of the big three video game companies to have an avatar system on the market. Where Nintendo lacked in online services, they excelled in social and party games and the Mii avatars were used in games like Wii Sports, Wii Play, and Wii Fit in order to provide a consistent multiplayer experience across games.
Microsoft’s take on avatars were first added to the Xbox platform a couple of years later in 2008. Xbox Live Avatars were created by Rare as part of a wide reaching revamp of the user experience labelled as NXE (New Xbox Experience). The NXE brought aspects from the Media Center (and Metro) into the dashboard and it paved the way for the Xbox experience we know today.
Unlike Nintendo’s early attempts at connecting friends (12-digit numbers) there was already a well-established community on Xbox Live and the new avatars were quickly integrated into basic features like the friends list, but it was no coincidence that Microsoft’s avatar system came just before the Kinect came on the market.
Many of the games for the Kinect acted as direct competitors to Wii games and avatars were used in Wii-competitor games like Kinect Sport, as well as more online focused games like 1 vs. 100.
Arguably, the Kinect seems to have died with the Xbox One and the original avatar system has been left exactly as it was. Today, you get the same functionally we got ten years ago, essentially.
Existing avatars are pretty basic and there is a limited set of skin tones and hair styles. My avatar wears a hat… because there isn’t the right kind of bald, for example.
Fast forward about ten years and Microsoft is gearing up to launch a huge upgrade to their avatar platform and this time it’s coming to Windows first.
These new avatars look incredible and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they are revamping their new avatar system at a time when Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality are starting to become a big part of Windows and Xbox.
We’ve seen examples of abstract avatars used as part of the Fluent Design System materials as well as the original introduction to the Windows Mixed Reality experience.
More recently, we have also seen less abstract representations. The examples above use live telepresence with Kinect and a basic scanned 3D representation.
You can easily see how these new avatars will fit right in into this spectrum of available avatars, but that’s not where it ends.
The new avatar system allows for a previously unseen amount of customisation and seem to be more human focused than anything we’ve seen before.
Human beings are most definitely a spectrum – we come in all ranges of sizes, genders, abilities, and conditions (temporary or otherwise). Having no choice on the number of limbs and only 17 choices of facial hair just doesn’t represent the beautiful range we have in reality.
You want to wear a floral dress?
No problem – Microsoft say there are no restrictions based on gender.
You want to have pink-but-slightly-purple hair?
No problem – Microsoft say there will be a free range of colour selection.
While I can’t find evidence that Microsoft has explicitly stated that these new avatars will also be used for Windows Mixed Reality, I think the very inclusive nature of the work they’ve done just proves that they understand the problem and are trying to solve it.
that the new Xbox avatars have been added in advance of a mixed reality push.
These new avatars have been created in Unity, which is one of the favourite development platforms for Windows Mixed Reality development.
The question of how someone wants to display themselves in Virtual Reality is an interesting one. Some prefer to see controllers floating in mid-air, others prefer to see renderings of arms.
Hopefully a range of abstract, realistic, and playful avatars will provide people with the choice they need to express themselves when using Windows Mixed Reality.
One thing is for certain: these new avatars are brilliant and I can’t wait to see what we can do with them.