People

How cloning Bitmoji stickers helped Facebook build better VR avatars

New Oculus avatars are now available to select third-party apps, and may find their way to non-VR apps later.

Facebook VR avatar editor

Facebook's new VR avatars are starting to roll out this week.

Image: Facebook

When Facebook first introduced personalizable avatar stickers in 2019, the company was widely panned for copying Snapchat's Bitmoji.

However, giving Facebook users a way to create these personalized 2D avatars also taught the company a lot about a need for more nuanced self-expression. And it directly informed Facebook's work on the latest generation of VR avatars, Facebook Reality Labs avatars product lead Mike Howard explained in a recent conversation with Protocol.

Facebook's new VR avatars launched within a small number of VR apps and games Friday, and are scheduled to become available to more developers and within additional apps later this year. The company first announced its new VR avatars at Connect last year, and wants to make them a centerpiece of its upcoming Horizon metaverse. The avatars will also be key to making third-party apps and games more social, with Facebook announcing Epic Roller Coasters, PokerStars VR and Topgolf with Pro Putt as launch partners.

Ultimately, the goal will be to allow members to build a representation of themselves that works across a wide variety of apps and contexts, whether they want to build an avatar that looks just like them in real life or one that shows a completely different side of themselves. "You kind of get to choose what to represent," Howard said.

Facebook also has plans to eventually bring these new avatars to apps and services outside of VR; Howard didn't want to elaborate on details, but one could imagine Facebook using them for Portal, future AR hardware and even within the core Facebook app.

Facebook's previous version of VR avatars was based on a couple dozen archetypes that people could then customize. That worked well for some users, but didn't quite feel right to others. And when Facebook launched its 2D sticker avatars, it realized that giving people more choice allowed the company to be a lot more inclusive. As a result, the new avatars let users tweak their body shapes, face shapes, nose shapes, while also adding options for religious headwear and more. "We are trying to make sure that people are represented," Howard said.

Howard described Facebook's new avatars as the result of an evolution that began with the company's earliest experiments with social presence back in 2015, when it unveiled its Toybox demo. "We started with blue heads in Toybox," he said.

The demo app, which was used to explore multiplayer interaction in VR, didn't really have personalizable avatars to speak of, and instead relied on semi-transparent floating heads and hands. Still, when those floating hands moved in a certain way, it became immediately clear that the person you were interacting with was shrugging their shoulders. "You can really learn a lot from a little," Howard explained.

Howard's team built on some of those early lessons to build more robust gesture estimation for its new VR avatars. It invited a number of users with different body shapes and sizes to visit its labs in Seattle, asked them to perform a bunch of different motions and captured the results with what Howard described as "filmmaking-type techniques."

The results were used to train an AI algorithm on accurate motion estimation, making sure that the arms and elbows of an avatar perform as expected when a Quest user moves their controllers. "It's one one the great challenges of making an avatar feel not like a robot," Howard said.

Fintech

Gavin Newsom shows crypto some California love

“A more flexible approach is needed,” Gov. Newsom said in rejecting a bill that would require crypto companies to get a state license.

Strong bipartisan support wasn’t enough to convince Newsom that requiring crypto companies to register with the state’s Department of Financial Protection and Innovation is the smart path for California.

Photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Vox Media

The Digital Financial Assets Law seemed like a legislative slam dunk in California for critics of the crypto industry.

But strong bipartisan support — it passed 71-0 in the state assembly and 31-6 in the Senate — wasn’t enough to convince Gov. Gavin Newsom that requiring crypto companies to register with the state’s Department of Financial Protection and Innovation is the smart path for California.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

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James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Workplace

Slack’s rallying cry at Dreamforce: No more meetings

It’s not all cartoon bears and therapy pigs — work conferences are a good place to talk about the future of work.

“We want people to be able to work in whatever way works for them with flexible schedules, in meetings and out of meetings,” Slack chief product officer Tamar Yehoshua told Protocol at Dreamforce 2022.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Dreamforce is primarily Salesforce’s show. But Slack wasn’t to be left out, especially as the primary connector between Salesforce and the mainstream working world.

The average knowledge worker spends more time using a communication tool like Slack than a CRM like Salesforce, positioning it as the best Salesforce product to concern itself with the future of work. In between meeting a therapy pig and meditating by the Dreamforce waterfall, Protocol sat down with several Slack execs and conference-goers to chat about the shifting future.

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Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

LA is a growing tech hub. But not everyone may fit.

LA has a housing crisis similar to Silicon Valley’s. And single-family-zoning laws are mostly to blame.

As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers, whose high salaries put them at an advantage in both LA's renting and buying markets.

Photo: Nat Rubio-Licht/Protocol

LA’s tech scene is on the rise. The number of unicorn companies in Los Angeles is growing, and the city has become the third-largest startup ecosystem nationally behind the Bay Area and New York with more than 4,000 VC-backed startups in industries ranging from aerospace to creators. As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers. The city is quickly becoming more and more like Silicon Valley — a new startup and a dozen tech workers on every corner and companies like Google, Netflix, and Twitter setting up offices there.

But with growth comes growing pains. Los Angeles, especially the burgeoning Silicon Beach area — which includes Santa Monica, Venice, and Marina del Rey — shares something in common with its namesake Silicon Valley: a severe lack of housing.

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Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

Policy

SFPD can now surveil a private camera network funded by Ripple chair

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a policy that the ACLU and EFF argue will further criminalize marginalized groups.

SFPD will be able to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks in certain circumstances.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ripple chairman and co-founder Chris Larsen has been funding a network of security cameras throughout San Francisco for a decade. Now, the city has given its police department the green light to monitor the feeds from those cameras — and any other private surveillance devices in the city — in real time, whether or not a crime has been committed.

This week, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved a controversial plan to allow SFPD to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks during life-threatening emergencies, large events, and in the course of criminal investigations, including investigations of misdemeanors. The decision came despite fervent opposition from groups, including the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which say the police department’s new authority will be misused against protesters and marginalized groups in a city that has been a bastion for both.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

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