Avatars are used both as expressions of self in applications such as gaming, messaging or immersive conversation, and as external digital assistants or companions. Their realism in terms of both look and action has matured, and with evolution toward digital companions and the greater use of immersive communication platforms, avatar use in everyday tasks will continue to grow.
But requirements for avatars are very different depending on whether they are designed for self-expression, as an external avatar for virtual assistance, or for companionship. The appropriate implementation of avatars depends heavily on better understanding how to enhance virtual body ownership, making avatars more inclusive, and exploring potential new use cases.
Exploring key design implications for future avatars by reviewing recent academic and industry research, a new report from the User Experience Strategies service at Strategy Analytics, Avatars: To the Uncanny Valley and Beyond, identifies a number of key areas for consideration in the future design and application of avatars.
Chris Schreiner, report author and director of Syndicated Research, UXIP, says: “For self-expression, how lifelike an avatar should be is dependent on the use case. Social media and more casual use cases are more appropriate for less lifelike avatars whereas the illusion of virtual body ownership is more important in gaming and VR. There is untapped potential for the provision of realistic, but non-human incarnations which can present novel and compelling experiences in gaming and VR.
“But for broader deployment, virtual assistants should avoid crossing the ‘Uncanny Valley’ – where the likeness of an avatar is close, but not quite that of a human. Greater realism and intelligence brings more emotional response from the user. While this will increase bonding for some, it can also result in stronger negative responses when the personalities of the assistant and user clash. More targeted virtual assistants of digital companions may cross the ‘Uncanny Valley’, but they will need to have a very strong understanding of the personalities of their target users and how best to connect with them.”
Says Kevin Nolan, VP of UX Innovation Practice: “Since user requirements for avatars are dependent on particular use cases, their deployment needs to be tested with users prior to launch to determine user acceptance and understand UX issues. But most importantly, avatars need to be better at being digitally inclusive. They need to provide options for different cultures, include culturally-specific gestures and movements, and use cases for users with disabilities.”