To be (Me) or Not to Be? Photorealistic Avatars and Older Adults
Interaction Design Lab
School of Computing and Information
The University of Melbourne
Victoria 3010 Australia
Dr Steven Baker
Interaction Design Lab
School of Computing and Information
The University of Melbourne
Victoria 3010 Australia
Dr Thuong N Hoang
School of Information Technology
Victoria 3125, Australia
Romina Carrasco Zuffi
Interaction Design Lab
School of Computing and Information
The University of Melbourne
Victoria 3010 Australia
The growth of commercial VR technology has fueled an interest
in user embodiment, where a graphical representation of the user,
a virtual avatar, enables a more immersive experience and richer
interaction. Recent research suggests that older adults are
increasingly playing digital games. These factors, combined with
the rapidly ageing population, means it is vital that avatar creation
software responds to the needs of older adults. Our study seeks to
address these needs, by better understanding older adult opinions
about virtual avatars that are photorealistic, i.e. bearing likeness to
their physical appearances. In our exploratory study, we
interviewed six older adults aged between 70 and 80 years and
asked them to evaluate 18 photorealistic avatars created with three
different commercial avatar creation tools. Results showed that
participants were not satisfied with their custom-made avatars due
to them missing characteristic features. The results also showed
that there was major consensus towards using photorealistic
avatars across a range of virtual environments.
• Human-centered computing → Virtual reality
Avatars, ageing, virtual worlds.
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A. Puri, S. Baker, T. Hoang and R. Carrasco, 2017, To be (Me) or Not to be?
Photorealistic Avatars and Older Adults. In Proceedings of the 29th Australian
Conference on Human-Computer Interaction, Brisbane, QLD, Australia, November
2017 (OzCHI 2017), 4 pages. https://doi.org/0000001.0000001
Avatars are the representation of a person which provide them an
existence in a virtual world . Avatars allow the user to perform
activities and have a degree of agency by engaging in interactions
for entertainment, commercial and social gatherings [7,9]. Older
adults are increasingly adopting technology and gaming. 43% of
older adults play video games in Australia .
While there has been sustained research interest in the use of
avatars in virtual worlds, less attention has been given to the
presence of more photorealistic avatars that may enhance
interaction and social participation among the older adults .
Our study seeks to address this gap by contributing to our
understanding of older adult’s preferences about photorealistic
avatars. We seek to evaluate the suitability of commercial avatar
creation tools to create photorealistic older avatars, and explore
older adult’s views about using photorealistic avatars in various
social virtual world scenarios.
The research questions that guided our study were:
RQ1: How do older adults feel about avatars that look similar to
RQ2: How do older adults feel about older avatars created using
commercial avatar creation tools?
RQ3: What types of avatars do older adults feel are most
appropriate across a range of social virtual environments?
2 RELATED RESEARCH
Avatars can be broadly classified into two categories- humanoid
avatars and non-humanoid avatars. Humanoid avatars can be
defined as avatars which are human like. Non-humanoid avatars
can be defined as avatars that do not resemble humans, for
example, avatars that resemble animals . A user’s choice of
avatar has been shown to have an impact on the quality of social
interaction in virtual worlds . Another study demonstrated that
participants with humanoid avatars had a high level of satisfaction
in comparison to those with non-humanoid avatars with respect to
social interactions. The participants evaluated 75 characters from
animated video games in terms of how human-like they looked.
Results showed that humanoid characters were preferred and that
the more non-humanoid the avatar became, the more unattractive
they appeared to the participant .
Though research suggests a preference for these types of
avatars, when creating humanoid avatars, users can idealize or
explore other identities that do not represent themselves . It is
therefore important to conduct research to better understand user
preferences in relation to humanoid avatars.
2.2 Avatars and Older Adults
The use of avatars is increasing in various contexts, including
health, education and entertainment . With the incorporation
of such avatars and the expansion of the aging society, more tech
savvy older adults are accessing online and virtual environments
to meet their social needs .
A study by Siriaraya and colleagues, showed that through the
use of avatars older adults sought to strengthen relationships.
Avatars also provided anonymity which made the participants feel
safe to interact online . The potential strengths of avatars for
elderly users in terms of omitting physical limitations and
enabling virtual travel through various real life scenarios has
prompted calls to investigate further the zone of avatars for
The use of avatars has been shown to enhance communication
between older adults . For instance, a paper determined the
effect of an avatar on interaction in ambient intelligent
environments with elderly users. Findings suggested that if a task
is given to a user by an avatar, the user tends to perform it in a
better way than when the task is given to a user in a text form,
further strengthening the need to increase our understanding of
older adult’s use of avatars for communication .
Despite the emerging evidence that avatars can strengthen the
social participation and communication of older adults, there has
been relatively little research aimed at clarifying the type of
avatars older adults prefer. In one of the few examples identified
by the authors, Cheong and colleagues asked older adults to
evaluate 20 avatars using semi-structured interviews . The
results showed that the elderly were not able to relate to the older
adult avatars. However, there was some attraction shown towards
child, animals and object avatars. Both these findings seemingly
contradict the results of studies with other user groups as detailed
above. Cheong and colleagues report three probable reasons that
the elderly did not identify with the older adult avatars. First, the
lack of story or plot to provide a context for avatar use may have
inhibited bonding with the avatar. Secondly, the authors speculate
that the participants educational background may have been a
factor influencing their understanding of avatars. A final
determinant may have been the limited customization features
available for the avatars .
Another vital study that dealt with the use of avatars by older
people paired 30 young individuals with 30 older participants. In
this study, young adults were in their early 20s and 30s whereas
older adults were 55 years and above. The paper dealt with
perception of age differences in 3D virtual worlds concerning
social interaction. This paper concluded that older people had
significantly lower levels of virtual presence in comparison to
young people . This leaves an open field of investigation for
research. Another study recommended that in order to have more
immersion in virtual environments, the user should identify with
visual or behavioural characteristics of the virtual avatar . One
way of approaching this projection of the self is by creating
photorealistic avatars. While these papers focus on older adults
and virtual reality, there has not been any research that has looked
at older adult preferences with respect to different virtual world
scenarios. Therefore, this paper aims to address photorealistic
avatar preferences of older adults while giving them a context of
social virtual scenarios.
2.3 Photorealistic Avatars
Photorealistic avatars render a realistic (avatar that replicates a
user) and animatable whole representation including facial
features of an individual . Photorealistic avatars have been
shown to be useful in promoting health behaviour changes, by
boosting morale and confidence . Moreover, they have been
shown to motivate users to think of their health risks . The
physical appearance given to individual user’s avatar can have an
impact on behaviour and attitude, and in turn, affect interactions
in both face-to-face as well as avatar based online communities.
This phenomenon has been described as the Proteus effect .
These studies, however, did not consider user preferences toward
their photorealistic avatars. Nor have any studies considered older
adult user preferences with respect to photorealistic avatars.
Six participants took part in the study, five male and one female.
The ages of the participants ranged between 70 and 80 (See Table
1). The participants were recruited from a large study relating to
virtual reality and avatars. The first author went to a workshop
that was part of the larger Ageing and Avatars project. The first
author spoke about this research and asked for volunteers to
register. The team contacted them via email and invited them to
participate in the study. Ethics approval for the study was granted.
(approval number 1647456).
The first author designed three photorealistic avatars for each
participant based on pictures of the participants taken from
various angles and perspectives. Considering the target of this
study are older adults, we aimed at using simple commercially
available software so that the software can potentially be used by
older adults. Due to the constraints of the study, the first author
decided to design the avatars as there are a range of software to
choose from. In order to design these avatars, three avatar creation
tools were used, MakeHuman, Morph Character System(MCS)
and NaturalFront 3D (NF3D).
The first full body avatar was created using MakeHuman,
which is an open source software package for designing full body
humanoid avatars (http://www.makehuman.org/). After starting
with a basic human form, the user can manipulate the avatars
appearance using a series of adjustments, in the form of a slider
between binary characteristics. Age can be adjusted between 1
and 90 years. The age of each avatar was set to correspond to the
participants age. Once the age and sex characteristics had been
set, the first author spent approximately 1-2 hours creating each
avatar likeness. (See Fig. 1 Image 1 & 2)
Table 1: Demographics of Participants
The second avatar was created using two plugins - Morph
Character System Male and Morph Character System Female in
Unity 3D. These plugins can be downloaded from the asset store
of Unity 5.6.0f3 – 64bit. Using this, a user can create a full body
avatar and modify it with 350+ sliders to adjust different features
of the avatar. The first author spent approximately 1-2 hours
creating each avatar. (See Fig. 1 Image 1 & 3)
The third avatar was created using NaturalFront 3D Facial
Animation Plugin Free (NF3D). NF3D can be downloaded from
the asset store of Unity. Using this plugin, a user can create a
similar looking avatar to a 2D picture. The third avatar is just the
head of the participant. The first author spent approximately 6-8
minutes in creating an avatar head from a 2D picture. (See Fig. 1
Image 1 & 4)
Figure 1: From Left to Right, 1) MakeHuman 2) MCS and
3) NF3D in comparison to 4) the head shot of participant
Once the avatars had been created, an individual interview
session was conducted for each participant in which their pictures
and printed images of the avatars were shown. In addition, printed
images of three virtual world scenarios were shown to each
participant. The aim of these images was to understand the types
of avatars that participants felt would be most appropriate given
three scenarios. The first scenario depicted a lounge where
participants were told their avatar would be meeting with family
members. The second consisted of a tennis court environment
where participants were told their avatar would be meeting with
friends. The third scenario was a library where participants were
told their avatar would be meeting with strangers. A series of
semi-structured interview questions were asked of each
participant to ascertain their views on which avatar they found
most photorealistic, what attributes they most liked or disliked
about each avatar, and which avatar they would most like to use in
the three virtual world scenarios. The interviews were recorded
and transcribed verbatim. After transcribing the data, it was coded
and subjected to a thematic analysis using both inductive and
deductive techniques . Pseudonyms, chosen by the
participants, will be used in the findings and discussion sections
4.1 Avatar Preferences
A consistent theme throughout the research was that four out of
six older adults preferred a single photorealistic avatar across all
different types of scenarios. Forjador clearly expressed the
importance of having a photorealistic avatar by stating that “you
still want to belong to your own body”. He further stated that not
having a photorealistic appearance would make him feel
“detached” whereas a photorealistic avatar would make him “feel
that (he is) a part of it (rather than feeling) like “watching a TV
show”. Even though this was a major theme, there were also
consistent comments that participants wanted to change minor
details about their avatars. Although, Forjador mentioned that he
preferred an avatar that looks like him in all situations, he also
showed interest to see himself in a different manner. For example,
Forjador, who described himself as having short fingers,
expressed a preference for the avatars long fingers. Similarly,
Herbert mentioned, that he wanted the avatar to look just like him,
but thinner. Only two participants Herb and Bob, chose different
avatars for the three different virtual world scenarios. Herb
showed some inclination towards looking younger by stating “if I
can be younger that would be wonderful”. Three participants
wanted to have a photorealistic avatar, but expressed a preference
for an “athletic body” or to look “fitter” if they were to play tennis
in the tennis court scenario.
Four out of six participants expressed different opinions in
scenarios other than the three used in the research. Holly and
Samuel displayed a strong desire to be a non-realistic avatar in
certain scenarios such as an “investigation” or places where they
“wouldn’t want to go”. Forjador and Herb thought that looking
like someone else would help them in a scenario where public
speaking is concerned.
Out of six participants, Herbert, Samuel and Bob chose
MakeHuman, Forjador chose NF3D and Holly chose MCS as
their preference. Holly, Samuel and Herb commented that NF3D
“isn’t real”. Herb and Forjador stated that MCS avatar had “fake
hair” which did not seem to be realistic. Participants were also
asked to describe the most important features in an avatar.
Forjador, Holly and Herbert mentioned that face and eyes are the
most important features of an avatar. Herbert and Forjador also
found MakeHuman to be feminine because of the distribution of
Overall, the participants showed mixed feelings towards the
avatars designed for them. Most of the participants could identify
themselves with the avatars but suggested that they would like
some minor changes in it. The type of avatars also varied for
participants depending on the social virtual environments given to
them. Two of the participants, Samuel and Herb chose different
preferences for different scenarios given to them.
4.2 Evaluation of Avatar Creation Tool
Another common theme was that most of the participants
perceived that the avatar creation tools made the avatars look
younger than their desired age. For instance, Herbert stated that
the avatar that was designed to be 70 years old looked like “a hard
living 30year old”. Only Herbert and Forjador nominated any of
their avatars as being in their 70s. (See Table 2)
Table 2: Participant Estimates of Avatar Age
on Age of
on Age of
75 or 80
4.3 Ratings based on Resemblance
Older adults were asked to rate the avatars on the basis of
resemblance with 0 being the least similar and 10 being the most
similar. In general, the ratings of MakeHuman were the highest
(average 6.16) and MCS were the lowest (average 4.6). However,
the ratings of NF3D were close to MCS (average 4.83). The
highest rated avatar by the participants were the one they chose to
represent themselves in the virtual worlds. (See Table 3)
Table 3: Summary of Participant’s Avatar Ratings
In alignment with the findings from above, older adults were able
to identify themselves with their photorealistic avatars. Older
adults evaluated avatars on the basis of facial features and body
structure in general. However, the emphasis for Holly seemed to
be the emotion of the avatar, rather than the level of physical
likeness as she stated “The eyes have got a smile in it and the
mouth has got a smile in it” for her preferred avatar. Samuel and
Herb wanted to change their avatars depending on the interaction
scenarios. Samuel stated that “I wanted to be as close to me as
possible” when meeting a relative and wanted to look different
while doing an “investigation”. Some participants also mentioned
that they preferred a non-photorealistic avatar in some situations.
Although, Forjador chose the most photorealistic options for all
scenarios, in terms of expressing his personality, Forjador
believed that having a different looking avatar might help him to
“push himself forward” as he is a shy person by nature. There
could be various plausible explanations for this. Firstly, previous
research has speculated that elderly users are accustomed to
watching television soaps, operas and drama television. This can
be a reason for the participants to relate to the avatars with
emotions and empathy . Secondly, the age and physical
similarity of the avatars may not be as important as the perception
of creating avatars based on circumstances and personalities as
mentioned by the participants . Finally, the participant’s
evaluation of their avatars may have been subject to negative
stereotypes . For example, Samuel and Forjador perceived the
avatars to be more criminal like and lacking personality while
Holly thought the avatar was not welcoming and looked
unrealistic. This may suggest that the elderly users tend to use
personal stereotypes to assess avatars very similar to how they
would evaluate others in reality.
The majority of the participants emphasized the facial features
being the most important part of the avatar in assessing the
avatars. Most of participants based a lot of their feedback on
describing how similar or different the eyes, mouth, nose and hair
were. In this respect, the results of this study are similar to the
results of another study where the participants expressed that the
lack of customization in avatar features interfered with their
ability to create desirable avatars . This was evident especially
in the area of hair customization. For example, many participants
felt their hairpiece to be fake and unrealistic and could not relate
to as their own.
Designing avatars for older adults is complex and requires
considerable thought and patience. Our findings suggest that the
older adults in our study showed appreciable interest in
photorealistic avatars. The participants could identify themselves
with photorealistic avatars shown to them in most cases.
However, it is important to note that the avatars which showed
intrinsic human characteristics such as emotions also seemed to be
more appealing to some participants. Moreover, the findings also
indicate that the virtual world scenarios shown to the participants
impacted on how they assessed their preferred avatars. In our
study, the participants thought that the avatars were relatable, but,
they suggested that it would be nice to have minor changes to the
avatars. The avatars looked younger than what they were designed
to look. Facial expressions, hair and features also seemed to play a
vital role in choosing avatars, more so than body structure or
clothes. In some cases, the preferences of avatars also changed
according to the social virtual environment scenarios given to
them. Therefore, future research should focus on creating avatars
to interact with older adults in different virtual world scenarios
and find out which avatar they prefer.
Given that the older adults seem to relate and empathize with
avatars which are welcoming and show emotions, it would be
interesting to see the preference of the older adults if they used
their avatars in the context of a real life story or a plot. We also
note that while designing avatars, facial features such as
expression, smile and looks outweigh the physique such as body
type, height, clothes. Therefore, the skill and creativity to
customize these avatars for the older adults requires more in-depth
research in creating a more photorealistic avatar they find
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