Nvidia Sees a Metaverse Populated With Lifelike Chatbot Avatars

What’s happening

Nvidia announced technology to let metaverse developers create lifelike avatars that can give an animated human face to the computers that people will interact with online.

Why it matters

The metaverse needs new computing tools if it’s to live up to its potential of new 3D realms for working, learning, socializing and goofing off, and Nvidia’s technology could also eventually give humans a new look online, not just bots.

You’re probably used to interacting by voice with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri. Now, Nvidia thinks those voices should have digital faces.

On Tuesday, the chip giant unveiled its Avatar Cloud Engine, a tool for building 3D models of speaking humans that Nvidia hopes will be the way we interact with computers and, perhaps, with other people in the metaverse.

The tool draws on Nvidia’s experience with 3D graphics and artificial intelligence technology, which has revolutionized how computers understand and communicate with natural language. Company Chief Executive Jensen Huang unveiled ACE in conjunction with the Siggraph computer graphics conference in Vancouver.

Advanced avatars such as those ACE could make possible are the next step in computer interaction. In the 3D digital realms that metaverse advocates like Meta and Nvidia hope we’ll all inhabit, a human-looking face could help us manage our investments, tour an apartment building or learn how to knit.

“These robots are … necessary for us as we create virtual worlds that become indistinguishable from the real one,” Rev Lebaredian, Nvidia’s vice president of simulation technology, said in a media briefing. The avatars are “on a path to pass the Turing test,” meaning that humans won’t be able to tell if they’re talking to a human or a bot, he said.

To get to that future, though, Nvidia will face plenty of challenges. Chief among them is the “uncanny valley,” in which digital representations of humans are a hackle-raising blend of real and artificial. To human brains accustomed to the real thing, not-quite-real simulations can come across as creepy, not convincing.

Another question is whether the metaverse will live up to today’s hype. Nvidia sees the metaverse as a visually rich 3D successor to the web, and Facebook believes in the metaverse so strongly that it renamed itself Meta. So far, however, only 23% percent of US adults are familiar with the metaverse, and the number is even lower elsewhere, according to analyst firm Forrester.

Still, avatar technology could be central to how we’ll present ourselves online, not just how we chat with bots. Today’s grid of faces in a Zoom videoconference could become photorealistic 3D versions of ourselves seated around a virtual conference table in the metaverse. When it’s time for something less serious, computers scanning our faces could apply our expressions instantly to the online personas others see, such as a cartoon character.

Nvidia has a lot riding on the technology. If the metaverse catches on, it could mean a big new market for 3D graphics processing coming at a time when its other businesses are threatened.

On Monday, Nvidia warned of worse than expected quarterly profits as consumers’ economic worries tanked sales of video game hardware. The AI chips that Nvidia sells to data center customers didn’t fare as well as hoped, either. No wonder Nvidia wants to see us all chatting with avatars in the metaverse.

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