Is Avatar Kinect a game changing innovation or is it just silly? With a little more work it could provide the sort of virtual or is it augmented, reality that creates a new way to interact and experience novel environments.
We first reported on the Avatar Kinect system back in January this year (2011) when it was first demoed. Now you can download it and try it out for yourself from the Kinect Fun Labs. The download is free but to use it you will need to be a Gold member of Xbox LIVE - but you can use it free until September the 8th via Xbox LIVE (silver or gold membership).
The idea of Avatar Kinect is simple enough. It uses the Kinect to determine body position and facial expression and maps these in real-time onto an avatar displayed on the screen with other similar avatars. The following short video shows in very roughly how this is achieved:
The point is that by making the body position and expression accurate something magical happens and you respond to the other avatars as if you were there in the group meeting. You can pick any of 24 "virtual stages" to explore and meet up to 7 other friends represented as avatars. You can record a scene and post it to the Kinect Share site.
The big problem for Microsoft is trying to figure out what this technology might be useful for. At the moment there are also big technical limitations with the system. Unless you are at the right distance the facial expression system misses many changes. The mouth tracking provides only reasonable lip sync and body movement are very limited. You can't touch yourself and there is no movement below the waist - this clearly simplifies the control problem and avoids the problems of users creating offensive avatars. Basically all you can do is treat your avatar as a static puppet that you control the upper body and facial expression of. This makes it great for "sitting around and talking" but not much else.
So what can it be used for?
Microsoft are suggesting that its ideal for virtual meetings and the rationale for using virtual rather video meetings is lower bandwidth - which doesn't seem like a huge plus. Another suggested use is in therapy sessions where avatars might make talking easier. Microsoft seem to get closer to a potential use when they suggest performance videos. You can get your avatar to sing, tell jokes or act its way thought a play. the advantage is that this frees you from the responsibility of looking the part in real light - you could even swap gender or race. To promote this idea there is a competition for the best stand-up comedian and all you have to do is create a 90-second film of your avatar telling jokes.
If you analyse what a system like Avatar Kinect offers then you have to conclude that it is basically a way for people to try on different bodies and interact with a group. It is an opportunity for anyone who feels less than confident about their appearance to become a performer for the delight of others. The internet has long provided an anonymous platform where users can express themselves and Avatar Kinect extends this to facial and body expressions.
If you ask why don't more people use video calling then the answer might well be that they aren't happy about revealing their physical appearance without spending time on polishing it to a level that they find acceptable - put bluntly would you want to take a video call just after you got out of bed, or even while you were still in bed? Perhaps an avatar, always presentable at any time of day and no matter what you are actually doing, could be the perfect stand in.
It is clearly a great piece of technology but you can't help think that we haven't worked out what it's good for. New ideas needed!