A man in a 360 photo booth

Digital twinning: creating a true-to-life avatar

How do you feel about a digital doppelganger? Dickon Ross met his at this year’s CeBit.

Do you have an avatar? What does it look like? Some middle-earth orc-like being or blue-skinned svelte alien form? Does it look like you? It may be a Japanese anime version of you, or a Lego people version. Either way, it’s unlikely it looks exactly like you. Yet in the future we may all have and even need avatars that do look exactly like us, a kind of digital twin existing in cyberspace. They may even talk like us and walk like us.

I don’t take part in online multiplayer games, I don’t have time for a second life online and I’m not interested in online chat rooms about science-fiction or fantasy novels. So I’ve never felt the need for an avatar of my own. It didn’t cross my mind until Hewlett-Packard invited me to step into its prototype avatar booth on its stand at this year’s CeBit computer show in Hannover. I was photographed from every angle, measured, rendered and turned into an avatar that was sent wandering around a kind of eternal virtual garden for avatars. It all felt a little spooky, even creepy.

Why would you want a digital twin? In our last issue, we looked at virtual reality worlds beyond gaming. Some of the most exciting applications involve interaction with other people where you are in a virtual place but you are all very much being yourselves, not alter egos. If you are trying to have a virtual work meeting with colleagues around the world you don’t want to go to that meeting dressed as an orc wearing a natty line of animal furs or an alien with pointy ears; you’d want to go as yourself. HP’s avatar prototype is limited to a visual likeness of the right measurements but one day it could be made to replicate the way you walk or the way you talk.

How far can it go?

Companies building the Internet of Things infrastructure have started to develop the idea of digital twins for products, in which the physical object – perhaps a bicycle, a car or each part of that car for example – is replicated digitally from the factory floor to the end of its life. Sensors pick up everything the physical product experiences, send that to the digital twin so faults can be diagnosed and problems solved before the real product breaks down.

If that can be done for an inanimate object, why not a person? Updated with big data from sensors on the person, as well as from medical inspections, your avatar could also become your digital twin medically. Just like you on the inside as well as the outside.

The potential is huge but it all seems some way off in the future. HP sees a much more immediate application and a huge market in the clothing retail trade. The online fashion retail industry will be worth $300bn worldwide by 2018, says Bernd Gill, HP Enterprise’s manager of service innovation. But the item return rate averages 30 per cent, most of which is due to customers choosing the wrong size or the wrong colour. HP’s avatar idea would allow customers to see how they’d look in the clothes, share those images with friends or family for second opinions, and, most importantly, order the right size. It would also mean the retailer or manufacturer has the data they need to make you your own made-to-measure clothing, and in the future there’s no reason why that should be much more expensive than off-the-peg clothes.

HP sees further applications in gaming or perhaps one day sending your descendants a video message. “If you want to give your great, great grandchildren a message from the future you could do that,” says Gill, so you could use it for a way to kind of conserve people after they’ve gone. The avatar lives on after you, a kind of digital ghost. Now that will be spooky.

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