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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.

Protocol | Fintech

How European fintech startup N26 is preparing for U.S. regulations

"There's a lot more scrutiny being placed on fintech. We are definitely mindful of it."

In an interview with Protocol, Stephanie Balint, N26's U.S. general manager, discussed the company's approach to regulations in the U.S.

Photo: N26

N26's monster $900 million funding round announced Monday underlined the German startup's momentum in the digital banking market.

Stephanie Balint, N26's U.S. general manager, said the funding will be used for expansion and also to improve "our core offering to make this the most reliable bank that our customers can trust," she told Protocol.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers 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 Signal at (510)731-8429.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

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Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Apple’s new MacBooks are the future — and the past

After years of reinventing the wheel, Apple's back to just building really good ones.

Apple brought back the ports.

Photo: Apple

The 2015 Pro was, by most accounts, one of the best laptops Apple ever made. It was fast and functional, and it had a great screen, a MagSafe charger, plenty of ports, a great keyboard and solid battery life. If you walked around practically any office in Silicon Valley, you'd see Pros everywhere.

Many of those users have been holding on to their increasingly old and dusty 2015 Pros, too, because right about when that computer came out was when Apple seemed to lose its way in the laptop market. It released the 12-inch MacBook, an incredibly thin and light computer that made a bunch of changes — a new keyboard and trackpad design chief among them — that eventually made their way around the rest of the MacBook lineup. Then came the Touch Bar, Apple's attempt to build an entirely new user interface into a laptop.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Protocol spoke to founders and tech execs who've embraced async and have tips on how to get started.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Imagine a company where there are no meetings — just time for deep, focused work punctuated by short conversations on Slack and project updates on Trello.

Now imagine a company where the no-meeting ethos is so ingrained that it's possible to work there for 10 years without ever speaking face-to-face with a single coworker, and for your boss to not even recognize the sound of your voice.

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Michelle Ma
Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at mma@protocol.com.
Protocol | Workplace

#AppleToo activist says Apple fired her for deleting apps from her devices

Janneke Parrish says she was dismissed after deleting Robinhood, Pokemon Go and Google Drive from her work devices during an investigation inside the company.

The Apple Too movement is trying to organize Apple workers into a collective movement.
Photo: Bloomberg via Getty

Unlike most other companies, Apple asks that its employees use their work phones like personal ones — and for five years, Apple program manager Janneke Parrish did as she was told. But last week, when Apple asked Parrish for her devices in an internal investigation, she was afraid Apple would see her personal and private information. She disobeyed orders and deleted apps like Robinhood, Pokemon Go and Google Drive. Then Apple fired her.

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

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