Virbela has grown a lot over time but they’ve had the same avatar system for nearly a decade. If you open the app today, you’ll see a whole new avatar system. As impressive as it is, it might still have some growing to do.
Long in the Making
Virbela is a platform for remote work, education, and events. The platform consists of an open campus that anyone can download and use for free, and private campuses co-created with clients.
There was nothing wrong with the old campus, but it got a whole lot of new features as well as a beautiful graphics upgrade showcased at the Hands In Enterprise Metaverse Summit last year. An upcoming avatar system was teased at the summit, but no release date was given.
“Avatars are important to the virtual experience because they add fidelity to the world,” Virbela Art Team Manager Nicole Galinato said at the event. “Our users love the playfulness of the current avatars, but they want more features that they can identify with.”
Since the summit, the old avatars roamed the new world. It wasn’t a glaring mismatch, but the avatars were definitely from a different generation. The new avatars certainly fit into the graphically updated virtual world a lot better.
The New You for the New Virbela
The next time that you boot up Virbela, whether you’re a first-time user or just returning after a while, you will be greeted by the first page of the new avatar generator. Just like with the old system, you can join immediately with a default avatar and personalize it later if you want. If you’re not in that much of a hurry, you have a lot of playing to do.
You select one of three “body types” rather than gender, so all clothing and cosmetic options are open to all users. There’s also a custom gradient for specific skin tones and a number of features have an “advanced settings” button that opens up menus of highly customizable sliders. The update also brings several more hair and facial hair options.
“What really pushed us to create this new avatar system was more about this idea of inclusion and equity,” Virbela co-founder and President Alex Howland told me on the XR Talks podcast. “We are working with a very global population of users and we know the importance of the avatar for people to express themselves and explore their identity through their avatar.”
The update also brings new clothing options and customizations. Many outfits consist of a “top” and a “bottom,” with the top consisting of several layers each with their own color combinations, similar to the system that AltspaceVR used (RIP Altspace). I went with the three-piece suite, which means color options for the jacket, vest, and shirt. (Neckties are under “Accessories”.)
“We also wanted much more variability in terms of the ability to customize the avatar because we sometimes have populations of many thousands in the same space and you’d find too many avatars that looked too similar to one another,” said Howland.
Even after you’ve toured your new avatar through the campus, you can change it at any time by selecting the gear icon in the upper right corner to open the settings dropdown menu and selecting the “change avatar” item at the top. And do keep checking back. According to Howland, more is coming.
“This is what I’ll call the [minimal viable product] of this new system. It’s a system that we can build upon and continue to add assets to, whether that be more hairstyles, more clothing options, more cultural garb, that folks can use over time – eventually leading to things like more facial expressions,” said Howland.
The Complete Package
To return to Galinato’s concept that the avatars contribute to the immersion of the world itself, the more detailed and more personal avatars do seem more at home in the more detailed and responsive Virbela campus. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to attend a large event with the new avatars, but I’m sure that they’ll be a lot more colorful now.