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.


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

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Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

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The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

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Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

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Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

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Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

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