The gradual merging of the virtual and physical worlds, further driven by the race to the metaverse, reaffirms the need for us to have a ubiquitous presence online—manifested through virtual avatars. In theory, these avatars are meant to be an online replication of our real-world selves. But should they be confined only to ‘true-to-self’ perceptions, or can we evolve our social identities through them in the future?
After all, users have the autonomy to change their physical appearance, style, and even their demeanour through avatars. The comfort gained from these freedoms and the absence of conventional societal rules in the virtual world is found to be a positive vehicle for identity exploration and experimentation. Forming such a flexible social identity online further unlocks opportunities for users to discover like-minded communities or to enjoy activities that might not be entirely achievable in the real world. These activities include online social gatherings, gaming, ecommerce, and livestream entertainment—showing vast potential for people to engage via their online avatars.
The presence of avatars in livestreaming
The use of virtual avatars on livestreams is not new. Since the mid-2010s, using avatars on video streams have gained prominence in East Asia. Although initially seen as ‘oddities’, livestreaming avatars have gone mainstream on global platforms as of today. This rising popularity can be attributed to the rapid advancement of avatar tech that increasingly incorporates modern artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) features to cultivate more realistic and interactive avatars.
As a tech-first platform, livestream apps are already privy to technological tools like AI and AR that make it compatible with advanced avatar tech which can enable streamers to create accurate and engaging digital representations. Groundbreaking livestream concerts have been shown to employ the use of avatars that could perfectly mimic performance mannerisms and even de-age entertainers due to their advanced tech. Aside from entertainment, the use of avatars in livestreams is also prominent in digital education, where it has been noted to overcome workforce limitations and enable a customisable environment for students.
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Given that the examples above mainly pertain to global celebrities and figures of authority, can the average streamer’s virtual avatar really build an authentic connection with their audiences? The answer to that question depends on how well a streamer can identify their target community and how accurately they can personalise and adapt their avatars to the audience’s needs.
Building communities through avatars
Human beings are inherently social creatures and this is exemplified through our need to build inclusive communities both offline and online. Community detection support has already enabled various social platforms to identify and segment communities that form around particular user attributes. The ability to detect overlaps between user interests or bubbles of activity in specific geographies help social platforms like livestreaming bridge connections more seamlessly. Avatar-based content creators can then leverage their avatars’ co-presence capabilities and identify potential niche audiences to better focus their content and build meaningful communities online.
However, as content becomes more participatory and immersive, there is a greater focus on deepening online and offline engagement for stronger community-building—which avatars can greatly facilitate. There has been a history of avatar-based streamers ‘peeling back the fourth wall’ where some audiences experienced an elevated level of transparency, intimacy and spontaneity while others felt alienated if they saw stark differences between the avatar and its original creator. Although human interaction can never be replaced, think of avatars as a supplement to our interactions in the real world and a source of empowerment for marginalised and discriminated individuals. Online communities need balanced authenticity among all avatar identities to build strong bonds, even if there are options to alter one’s virtual identity.
The limitless potential of virtual avatars
The rate of development in avatar tech has reached great heights over the years, especially with cyber-habitation becoming a possibility in the ever-growing metaverse. Even industries that have been built on physical presences, such as fashion and sports, have taken note of the potential of integrating virtual avatars with their operations. Additionally, avatars can be a beacon of empowerment for individuals who suffer from real-world physical limitations or marginalisation. For instance, physically challenged individuals can freely and inclusively communicate their personas and creativity via their avatars without facing the constraints that would normally inhibit them in the real world.
The virtual world has transformed our daily lives, so it is no surprise that our online presence is also evolving through virtual avatars. Combined with new innovative technologies, we are only scratching the surface in terms of the avatar ecosystem’s potential. It is exciting to see where avatar tech and its convergence with social identities can go from here.
Mike Ong is VP at Bigo Technology.