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Avatars: We will encounter digital doppelgangers on the street


Avatars like Mark Zuckerberg's are still ridiculed, but they are becoming increasingly photorealistic and thus digital twins. Many brands already see them as the consumers of tomorrow - but the potential for abuse is enormous. Do you need a right to your own digital clone?

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»Abbatare« at the London Abba show »Voyage«

Photo: Johan Persson / Abba Voyage / PA Media / dpa

The path to the digital double starts at Berlin's Kurfürstendamm.

In a modern showroom, soft electronic music throbs, in the middle stands a strange box.

Whoever enters its interior is fixed by 130 mini lenses.

The scanning process takes less than a minute and works like a photo box at the train station.

The only difference here is that there are no passport photos on paper, but digital, lifelike images: avatars.

Markus Peuler is quite happy with his copy.

His digital twin appears on a large standing monitor: slim, with a gray multi-day beard, a crumpled denim shirt and white sneakers.

The original stands just as casually next to it.

Peuler is the head of NexR Technologies.

The Berlin start-up specializes in creating avatars.

The revenants look so real because the NexR scanners also take dozens of body measurements, from shoulder width to biceps circumference to forearm length.

Nothing is embellished here.

The avatars have the same padding and curves as their real counterparts.

This is crucial for the business idea of ​​the Berliners.

They set up their first scanners in branches of the fashion chain H & M in Hamburg and Berlin, as a test.

Two devices will soon be installed in a branch in Bangkok.

Customers can use it to determine their clothing sizes.

The virtual fitting should help to avoid queues in front of the changing rooms and reduce returns in online shopping.

The start-up also cooperates with a fitness chain: If you train in their studios, you can use the exact scan to determine how much your stomach has become flatter or your biceps stronger.

The digital avatar changes its appearance accordingly.

NexR has already produced higher-resolution digital versions for Bayern stars such as national goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, and the kicking avatars were used at a virtual reality event organized by the club.

Peuler senses a megatrend: »We believe that soon everyone will want their own avatar«.

He is not alone in this hope.

Tech giants like Meta and countless start-ups are currently betting that people will spend even more time in virtual worlds in the future – and search for new, three-dimensional forms of expression and identities there.

Preferably after several: A photorealistic avatar could take part in conferences and meetings for us.

A stylized ideal version of ourselves virtually hangs out with friends, attends concerts or searches for a partner, with still others we move through video games.

And just like in the real world, our digital alter egos spend a lot of money: on clothes, travel and entertainment.

The gaming scene shows that billions can be earned in the virtual economy.

The business with the needs of the avatars is flourishing there.

With Minecraft, Roblox or Fortnite, gamers spend a lot of money on customizing their representatives and equipping them with accessories.

In this year alone, the sale of outfits, optical enhancements for avatars ("skins") and other virtual goods is said to have brought in more than 50 billion dollars.

With the avatar to the nail salon

Luxury brands recreate their bags, dresses and sunglasses in pixels.

The first purely digital fashion labels no longer produce anything material.

They all assume that avatars will become the new status symbols - and that their owners for Teams conferences will also want to change their outfit.

The brief hype about NFTs, i.e. digital certificates of ownership, got the market going and already caused the first excesses: A collection of more than 600 pixel sneakers went for the equivalent of 3.1 million dollars.

Some already see the dawn of an age of "a-commerce," an avatar economy in which companies sell directly to fictional characters.

Many want to get involved in the commercial conquest of the three-dimensional digital world.

For example, Microsoft is currently testing realistic avatars for its conference software Teams, which are intended to replace the two-dimensional tiles in video conferences.

Like many other companies, the technology consultancy Accenture is experimenting with virtual offices.

Start-ups like rooom from Jena specialize in creating chic virtual meeting places for avatars - online shops, trade fair stands or party locations for companies.

A global cosmetics manufacturer offers hairstyles and makeup.

And those who want to send their avatars to be tattooed or to the nail studio will also find what they are looking for.

It is still more technical limits that set limits to the trend.

In many places, avatars don't yet have lower bodies and legs because these are difficult to animate realistically.

Movements, facial expressions and lip-synching have to be right, otherwise a disturbing feeling arises, which is known in the professional world as an »uncanny valley« or acceptance gap: While we often find stylized online characters sympathetic, human-like depictions, even with small quirks, quickly trigger horror out.

Avatars that are created on the basis of photo scans, as is the case with NexR, must then be animated in motion capture studios in order to move reasonably realistically: real people in overalls full of sensors do gymnastics, run, dance around - as a motion template for their digital counterparts.

The pop retirees from Abba, for example, recorded the movements for their London »Abbatar« show in sensor suits beforehand, and their holograms on stage show them decades younger.

Models who never sleep and never age

This effort can be avoided with extremely high-resolution video processes.

They are in use, for example, at Volucap in the Babelsberg film studios.

Not a bad place for visions of the future, after all, Fritz Lang filmed his silent film classic »Metropolis« on the site almost 100 years ago, at that time with a complex stage construction.

Today there is a simple, round tent in one of the studios.

The camera eyes and lamps are reminiscent of the 3D scanner on Ku'damm, only one size larger.

With the technology they developed themselves, they have already recorded stars like Keanu Reeves and other protagonists from the latest »Matrix« issue.

Volucap boss Sven Bliedung pulls out his tablet and shows a film sequence in which the »Matrix« characters Trinity and Bugs merge – digital magic.

Bliedung believes that the protagonists of major Hollywood productions will in future be saved as standard in the highest resolution and in various movement sequences - in order to continue the films from the digital canned goods in an emergency, should actors fall ill or die during the shoot.

In Los Angeles, one agency already offers avatar versions of well-known models that never sleep, never age, and are always ready for action on virtual catwalks.

The Cologne-based company Renderpeople operates a marketplace for scanned people of different ethnicities and ages, who can be used as film extras or in advertising clips for a license fee - they also use the high-resolution video technology from Babelsberg in part.

The film professionals from Volucap also help companies like Deutsche Telekom in the Metaverse.

For wireless service providers, the new worlds – and the data volumes they require – are an important incentive to persuade customers to switch to 5G.

The Fantastischen Vier and the Berlin western combo The BossHoss were already in the tent for Telekom.

A pair of light data glasses is enough to move through the digitally enriched Telekom headquarters.

The holograms of the Berlin band perform on a small stage with the movements recorded in Babelsberg.

Once VR glasses became widespread, guest appearances in one's own living room would also be possible, says Bliedung, including selfies with the band - or better: their deceptively real avatars.

The idea of ​​virtual worlds populated by eternally young, potentially immortal alter egos has been a dream of tech apologists and a nightmare of their critics for decades.

As early as the mid-1980s, a computer game appeared that called its protagonist an avatar.

The term comes from the ancient Indian language Sanskrit.

He was popularized by the science fiction author Neal Stephenson.

In his 1992 novel »Snow Crash«, Stephenson already described the supposedly brave new world as a dystopia ruled by corporations and organized crime.

Social differences are not overcome there, but rather replicated: if you want a chic avatar, you first need expensive access to the »Metaverse«.

Those who enter the digital world via cheap public access have to make do with gritty black-and-white versions.

With »Second Life«, the first art world populated by avatars was created 20 years ago, but the curiosity-driven hype was short-lived and soon it became quite lonely again.

Zuckerberg Avatar: A demonic china doll with dead eyes

Now Mark Zuckerberg is trying again.

Just over a year ago, the Facebook founder announced the renaming of his company to Meta - and its orientation towards a new digital world called Metaversum.

In the, users could “teleport” themselves to any conceivable environment using avatars with realistic facial expressions and gestures, for example to friends or family far away.

The metaverse, according to Zuckerberg's advertising promise, will become the most social experience since computers have existed.

The first samples, however, looked underwhelming.

When the Meta boss presented new versions of his online game »Horizon World« for Spain and France last summer, he presented a super-simple, legless cartoon version of himself in front of the Eiffel Tower.

On his Facebook page, commentators sneered that the graphics were worse than those of the game "Sims 1" two decades ago.

The US tech magazine "Fast Company" described Zuckerberg's digital edition as a "demonic porcelain doll" with "dead eyes".

As can be seen from an employee's LinkedIn post, which has since been deleted, a well-known 3D artist and his team set about beautifying the chief avatar after this embarrassment - around 40 drafts are said to have been necessary before Zuckerberg was satisfied.

In October, the meta-man used it to lead parts of his developer conference, now as a full-body edition.

Zuckerberg presented photorealistic avatars of the generation after next, which his people are currently working on, and a less complex instant version: An employee scanned her face with her smartphone for around two minutes with different expressions.

According to Meta, it took a few hours of computing power and her lifelike head, speaking with her own voice, was ready.

It's still research.

But she shows

But if at some point photos are enough to create realistic avatars, who will stop third parties from hijacking our appearance and living it out in the Metaverse?

This is not a far-fetched scenario: so-called face-swap apps have long been used to mount faces from harmless photos on other people's bodies - which ex-partners abuse for so-called revenge porn, for example.

And if the social networks have not yet managed to get hate crime and cybergrooming under control – how is this going to succeed in the age of avatars?

The first acts of harassment and abuse among avatars in the Metaverse have already been documented.

The philosopher Thomas Metzinger is a pioneer when it comes to ethical guidelines for new technologies.

Years ago he researched to what extent the sense of self can be transferred to avatars.

As a test subject, he slipped into avatar roles himself and was surprised at how quickly and deeply he identified with them - even in the body of a woman.

What if a Putin avatar announces a nuclear first strike?

Metzinger fears new fraud scenarios.

"We urgently need something like a chassis number, a forgery-proof system for photorealistic avatars," he says.

Without this authentication, secure legal transactions between avatars are not possible.

In addition, the risk of abuse is great: Pädocriminalle could disguise themselves as child avatars to approach minors.

He considers the merging of modern, AI-controlled chatbots and personoid avatars, which made increasingly realistic deepfakes possible, to be particularly dangerous.

Metzinger's horror example: A Putin avatar announcing a nuclear first strike - and the world does not know whether it is the real Kremlin ruler or a deceptively similar virtual copy.

Metzinger demands that politicians must create intelligent rules for the new virtual worlds and their inhabitants in good time.

A right to one's own avatar after death is fundamental - to prevent it from being used for unfair business after one's personal lifetime has expired.

The philosopher believes that interaction with human-like avatars opens up new opportunities for many people to take part in public life.

"Others will be overwhelmed," Metzinger points out, "if we constantly have to ask ourselves whether our counterpart is real or a technically generated social hallucination."

Source: spiegel

All business articles on 2022-12-29

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