What Are Virtual Reality Avatars?

Virtual reality avatars are digital representations of human beings or automated programs within a virtual environment. The term is most often applied to the digital character a human being controls within a virtual world to render his or her interactions and locations within that world. An avatar can be controlled with a computer keyboard issuing basic commands or maneuvered with a full motion-detection system that translates the user’s movements into movements the virtual reality avatar makes. Although largely used in the video game and social media industries, there are uses in other fields, such as medical rehabilitation and military training.

At its core, a virtual reality avatar is a three-dimensional (3D) model made of polygons, colors and textures that could have a basic skeletal framework programmed into it so movements can be tied to more realistic physical models. The perception, however, is that the 3D character is actually representing the motions, emotions and personality of the human controlling it. Virtual reality avatars can literally be anything from a simple square to a fantastical animal and do not need to relate in any way to reality or the physical appearance of the user.

One of the most employed abilities of virtual reality avatars is customization. Even in applications in which the avatar is confined to a static form, such as a human body, many parts of the model can usually be modified to create a unique appearance. Accessories, such as clothing, jewelry or other digitally created props can usually be added to an avatar to provide an even higher level of customization. This can create a strong association between the human user of an avatar and the virtual world in which the 3D model exists.

In applications that are not entertainment related, virtual reality avatars can have a significantly different role. In rehabilitative therapy, avatars can be calibrated to a high degree to measure and display a patient’s progress and to allow a virtual reality environment to respond in some constructive way to even the slightest motions. This type of therapy can be very effective, especially if a concise set of challenges can be presented and resolved though the use of virtual reality avatars.

In military applications, virtual reality avatars are often used to simulate situations that cannot easily be replicated in real life. These simulations rely on an intricate input system that is capable of capturing the user’s immediate reflexes while also maintaining a relatively accurate model of real-world physics inside the virtual world. The avatars in these situations are less reliant on custom appearances and instead are more focused on the accuracy of position, visualization and response.