Avatars 2.0: ready for Mixed Reality

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.

Watch the new Xbox Avatars announcement

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.

Microsoft Future Vision 2015 – Redux

Back in April I wrote about the latest ‘Future Vision’ video from Microsoft and I was very pleased to see this video come back onto my radar.

Dave Jones and Anton Andrews

Larry Larsen at Channel 9 posted an interview with Dave Jones and Anton Andrews – a couple of the guys who worked on creating this fantastic (yet realistic) vision of the future.

Dave and Anton give us some context on the decisions and thoughts behind the various ideas, including a few extra details about my favourite concepts – the flexible digital notebook and the wrist device.

Future Vision

It’s well worth watching if you are interested in these forward looking concepts, but make sure you watch the Future Vision video first!

Something I had missed when watching the original video was the idea that the system itself had noticed Kat had gone into a flow state. The suggestion here is that the various devices would work together, taking sensor information like heart rate and galvanic skin response, to automatically switch into this mode.

Automatic Mode Switching

The system would then automatically block out any unwanted distractions like notifications and set her communication status to do not disturb.

A nice touch is that the earpiece also switches to red to show other human beings. Very cool.

In The Flow State

As a software architect and technology enthusiast I find myself bombarded with huge amounts of information – communication requests, push notifications, reminders, and much more.

Getting myself into the flow state is hard enough (music helps) but keeping it can be even more difficult. The idea of having the system automatically sense this and move things into a ‘do not disturb’ state is very attractive.

An important part of these Future Vision videos is that they are realistic, and all of this could be done today:

  • Notice high amounts of use in productivity apps (Office, Visual Studio)
  • Sense physical changes in the user (Band)
  • Set ‘Quiet Hours’ for notifications (Windows)
  • Change status to ‘Do Not Disturb’ (Skype)
  • Handle exceptions that can break through (Cortana)

Microsoft controls each one of those components, but the fact is that the most futuristic part of these videos is not the hardware or the software – it’s the integration.

Considering Microsoft reaffirmation as the productivity company, it’s probably something they should try to integrate in order to achieve their goal.

Microsoft Future Vision 2015

I’ve always been inspired by the Microsoft ‘Future Vision’ videos which depict a not-too-distant vision of productivity. This year’s entry has not been a disappointment, with a number of interesting UI concepts explored.

The best thing to do is watch the video above to see them all, but I’ve picked four of my favourites below.

Augmented Reality + Tactile Controls

I’m not really what to call this, so I’m just going to call it a ‘holographic puck’. In this instance, a round hardware device can be rotated to make selections on a holographic UI which has been augmented over the top of Kat’s vision.

By mixing the feel of tactile controls with the holographic interfaces you can avoid the strange experience of ‘tapping thin air’ while still providing the users with the infinite possibilities of augmented reality.

Holographic puck

I really like this concept, and it’s not too unrealistic considering the holographic technology coming in Windows 10. Later in the video you see the same hardware device used to transfer the data collected in the first scene.

Flexible Digital Notebooks

Opening the flexible computer

My favourite concept from the whole video is shown when our hero attends a café. The tea selection is shown on this flexible display, and when Kat opens it all of her personal stuff is automatically available to her.

While I think the folding doesn’t look as amazing as it could be (give me a proper notebook style folding, please) – it is a great example of the kind of computers we will be using in the future, and something I really want.

Flexible computer

Being a massive notebook and stationery nerd, I really love the idea of having a flexible notebook computer like this. I hope it happens in the not-too-distant future. The Surface line of computers already has rich inking capability, so it’s only going to get better over time.

Wearable Computing Devices

Throughout the video only one computer looks like it belongs exclusively Kat. The screen on her wrist is probably the equivalent of the smartphone today, being a general purpose communication and computing device.

Wrist computer

This is quite a way off the current Microsoft Band, but the technology sector is certainly going this direction. My Band has already helped give me the motivation to be fitter and healthier, and while we don’t really see much in the way of health statistics in this video, it can certainly be inferred from the way things are going.

Large Table-like Displays

Large table

I also love this large table computer concept. When Kat needs to get some real work done, she just uses her wearable computer to hand off to a bigger computer in a shared workspace.

I’m sure this kind of keyboard-free interaction will be best suited to a world where voice interaction has been perfected. Though I’m sure a software keyboard could be provided. You can even see Kat use a Bluetooth headset (Bragi Dash?) to work with Cortana-like assistant in the top left of the UI.