Facebook Details Social VR Avatar Experiments and Lessons Learned


Facebook says they want to launch an official social VR experience “as soon as possible;” to get there the company has been experimenting with various approaches to find out which avatars work best for social VR interaction.

During the opening keynote at Oculus Connect last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg excitedly showed the latest version of the company’s forthcoming social VR experience. As he put on the headset for a live demonstration, one of the first things he said to his virtual friends was “your avatars look a lot better than the last time that you showed me…” He was referring to an older Facebook social VR demo showed off earlier this year which featured more ‘holographic’ style avatars which had elements like glasses and hair hand-drawn onto them.

Facebook Plans to Launch Social VR App "As Soon As Possible"

Michael Booth, Facebook Social VR Product Manager and one of the two virtual friends virtually on stage with Zuckerberg, was among the team that evolved Facebook’s social VR avatar design to what we see in the latest demo. Speaking later that day in a presentation at the conference, Booth walked through a number of experiments the company has done in an attempt to find the most believable way to represent users in a social VR space.

In the video heading this article, Booth showed that the company clearly aimed to stay away from ‘realistic’ avatars, citing the uncomfortable feeling of the Uncanny Valley as something to be avoided until it can be effectively crossed. That means dropping back to a stylized avatars, but Booth says that even stylized representations of humans can be unsettling and uncomfortable to engage with while in VR.

While avatars in VR could be literally anything (a dinosaur, spider, a building, etc), Booth says that Facebook’s policy of “authentic identity” (using your real name and photos of yourself) constrained the avatar design to something necessarily human, and something that could be identified as ‘you’ by people around you.


So while the cute ‘Rabbitar’ that the team developed was surprisingly effective as a believable avatar, it didn’t quite fit the prompt. However, lessons from the Rabbitar, specifically its simple eyes and mouth, carried over to other experiments, and ultimately found their way into the latest avatars that Zuckerberg showed off on stage. Booth summarized what the company has learned so far and what they think makes for a believable avatar in VR:

Speech – with positional audio)

1:1 Tracking – don’t break it with animations

The importance of hands – for gesturing while you speak and interactions with the environment

Eye contact/blinking – procedural blinking works fine, as long as blinking is happening

Gaze following – creates the connection of someone looking at you and allow lets you natually follow their gaze to others

Lipsync – an important visual queue to show who is talking

Emoting – helps add emotion and emphasis while we wait for more advanced facetracking technology

Arms and body – avatars seen in a third-person view should have arms and rather than just a floating head and hands (the first person view should not show arms and body because the tracking is not precise enough)

That’s not to say that Facebook’s social VR team has dusted their hands and called their work on avatars complete… Booth says even about the latest avatars, “this is still a work in progress, we still are experimenting and we plan to continue to evolve these avatars over time.”

Curiously, despite being owned by Facebook, Oculus is taking its own approach to avatars, and in fact debuted an entirely new avatar paradigm at the same conference, which the company says can be persistent between apps and cross platform between Rift and Gear VR. Their approach is even more stylistic and doesn’t aim for “authentic identity” as the Facebook avatar system does.

Though we’re learning more about what types of avatars feel comfortable to interact with in VR, the problem is far from solved for those looking for one consistent representation of their virtual selves across all social virtual spaces.

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • Laura Aldi

    I don’t understand social VR and I think it leaves the VR world vunerable to predators.

    • Alex

      Luckily it should be easy to implement a blocking feature which would make offending people invisible/mute, and even keep them from seeing you.

      • Laura Aldi

        Agreed, that should be possible. I had been thinking about this recent article: http://uploadvr.com/dealing-with-harassment-in-vr/ and the comment regarding harassment: “we need to also offer the tools to re-empower the player as it happens.”
        I’m sure it’s being worked on…

    • David Herrington

      To your first statement, I’m unsure what you don’t understand… do you mean you don’t understand why people would want to communicate via VR? If this is the case it is fairly simple.

      I have a friend that lives in Russia and I live in USA. We could email/text, but calling is better, and better yet I could Skype/Facetime him to really see how he is doing, see his facial expressions as I tell jokes. As they say, body language is 80% of all language. So if I could make it so that I was in the same room with him then it would be even better.

      Predators are everywhere, even in real life. We can’t let a few bad eggs ruin the everyone else’s experience. This is a new medium and the world has placed some of its best minds trying to understand the dangers. There will always be those that try to take advantage of others but they will be squelched, booted, muted, and banned and will learn the hard way that everyone’s rights have to be upheld.

      • Laura Aldi

        Thanks, David. What you describe, and using Skype makes sense to me. Social VR and Avatars that mimic body language, etc… I don’t understand the train of thinking if Skype is still so popular and I wonder about the development beyond social applications.

        • David Herrington

          Our world is trending towards the impersonal with smart phones and internet and gaming and social media. People find it harder and harder to interact face to face with someone and prefer a sterile environment (much like this chat) to interact with one another instead of just doing it in real life.

          Companies like Facebook are trying to take advantage of this “impersonalization” and show that not only can you IM someone but you can even “be right there” immediately with them in a sterile safe environment of your choosing.

          I’m not 100% certain of Facebook’s goal with this but one could see in the distant future when VR is much cheaper and easier to use (like a pair of glasses) that VR chat and interactions will take place on a much more regular basis for social as well as business purposes.

          140 years ago I’m sure there were many people who didn’t understand the plan for the new “telephone” so many people were talking about. They didn’t see why people couldn’t just talk to one another in person. Yet the telephone revolutionized our world with the aftershocks felt even to this day.

          • Laura Aldi

            All well said, David. It’s the use of cartoon Avatar’s that seem peculiar when live streaming and 3d photos are available. So, I will think about your comment, 140 years from now and wonder what this will all lead to. Not only can I be in my video game with VR (childhood dream of mine), I might finally be in my own cartoon… lol. : ) We’ll see!

          • David Herrington

            Thank you, Laura. For the use of cartoon avatars I will gesture back to the article’s main point, which is that since we have not been able to track and recreate the human body in its entirety to be used in VR, we have to use an avatar that approximates the body’s movements and expressions. When trying create an avatar we can encounter the “uncanny valley” in which something appears unsettling to the human mind in VR. These are lessons learned from that study to create this avatar.

            The “uncanny valley” is very easy to fall into as we try to recreate the humanness we initially think we want in VR but find we cannot display well enough.

  • Firestorm185

    You know, as cool as the Oculus Avatars looked, I still wish that once fully customizable cartoon-style avatars like the ones in the social VR demo are made available that Oculus will replace their avatar system with Facebooks. Facebook’s seems much better imo.

  • I’ve been using #VR & #VirtualWorlds for business and social ‘face-to-face’ interaction for a decade. The Avatars Facebook and some other recent VR vendors are promoting are UGLY to say the least!

    The total irony behind Facebook wanting ‘Social VR,’ is they currently prohibit ‘Non ‘Real Names’.’ This is a complete disconnect from the established World(s) of VR, where the majority of people have accounts based on pseudonyms. I actually wrote a LinkedIn article about this which can be found here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/oculus-facebook-rift-re-real-names-john-westra

    Laura’s concern about predators is valid. The world is full of them. The best thing the ‘Sheep’ can do is either A) Find a Good ‘Shepherd’ for their Virtual World Travels or B) Don’t be a sheep!

    Remember: #VR Whatever We #AR Capable of Imagining! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7251640a14f4815fbd6e8da52254e0adbfae85e8d8d7a133cee09c4f4ee547b5.jpg

    • John J

      The SL avatar system is far from perfect but still the best around for virtual worlds.