Virtual Agents Are Becoming Major Players In The Expanding Metaverse

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In a Nutshell

Who would have thought that the humble chatbot would one day transform into an intelligent virtual human being, indistinguishable from the real thing?

The onset of virtual agent technology could be considered the next evolution of rudimentary chatbots, their wider-implementation of artificial intelligent programming set to upgrade and reinvent an entire industry overnight.

In this article, we aim to explore what virtual human development means for current and future users of XR technology and how it will transform virtual world experiences in the metaverse. 

Virtual agents are AI-driven three-dimensional renditions of entities that can take the form of humans, animals, aliens, etc, that populate virtual worlds. A far cry from their first iterations, early versions of semi-intelligent chatbots (e.g., Microsoft's now discontinued office assistant Clippy and smarter Child AIM) were first introduced to the public during the late 90s to early 2000s. In many ways, predecessors of Apple's Siri and Samsung's S Voice, these elementary versions of chatbots responded to keyword prompts that utilized text-to-speech technology to simulate natural human conversation. Chatbots of yesteryear would be able to interact with users through thousands of predetermined answers and could communicate simplified information (e.g., movie times, game scores) via the web. 

Today, the purpose of virtual agents and chatbots are much the same—to provide customer service and client support functions. The newly emergent 3D chat of modern times enables exchanges to take place between humans and AI-driven entities who can converse, inform, understand, reason, and exhibit human-like emotions for a more meaningful and enriching social experience. 

Its only right we discuss the fast-moving history of chatbots in relation to the onset of virtual agent technology because after all, they are their predecessors. In 2016, Facebook and other social media platforms started building intuitive chatbots to assist with everyday tasks from inside their messaging platform. Fast forward to 2022, and you now have developers exploring conversational interfaces that, in time, won’t need a mouse or keyboard to function. The future of chatbots brings extremely fast-paced innovation and a group of developers set on producing photorealistic, conversational, AI-powered virtual agents, practically indistinguishable from real-life folks like you and me. 

These are exciting times for developers who can now leap out of their metaphysical boundaries and thrust virtual agent technology across the spectrum from futuristic theory into reality. Business leaders and developers are ushering in virtual agent technology with a long list of justifiable use cases. Several companies are making a splash in the virtual agent development scene, bolstered by the recent surge in popularity of everything metaverse-related. 

With the metaverse becoming increasingly actualized every day, netizens will no longer be confined to the siloed digital spaces of Web 2.0, but instead, be able to enter the seamless interoperable environments of tomorrow. Users will have the freedom to engage in a number of immersive virtual experiences such as up-close social capabilities, virtual e-commerce, virtual education, and the chance to make new acquaintances through the creation of interactive life-like virtual agents. Because the advancements in AI continue to empower the emergence of increasingly realistic virtual agents, users may be surprised to learn that these agents now possess unique individualized personalities and a plethora of useful informational features. Virtual agents can ease the pressures of peer-to-peer interactions by providing a safe and constructive learning experience and can be a cost-effective way to grow, discover, and socialize in consistent educational spaces. 

Augmented workspaces and social media will eventually move to the metaverse, and virtual agents will help us navigate our way around and provide us with seamless assistive experiences. The demonstrations above illustrate the monumental rise of chatbot technology as it undergoes complete metamorphosis and spreads its wings into the virtual future.

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What Is A Virtual Agent?

Virtual agents are comparable to chatbots but are more intelligent. The best way to understand the difference is by looking at their purpose and core functionality. Virtual agents are specifically developed to engage in content-specific, unscripted dialogue. They use machine learning (ML) to respond to conversations on various topics instead of relying on pre-scripted conversations and responding to keyword prompts. 

Virtual agents can be depicted as humans that display realistic human-like characteristics (e.g., biological appearance and facial expressions). Virtual agents can even take the form of aliens, humanoids, animals, or whatever creative depiction one chooses. Virtual agents are designed to have a convincing, well-informed conversation with you, typically using unscripted dialogue within a specific content field. Virtual agents combine AI technology such as natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) to act independently and provide meaningful experiences through realistic conversational assistance. They can learn, use open dialogue, and act more human-like than chatbots.    

Multiple companies are working to champion virtual agent technology and make it a reality. One of the most fundamental questions developers face right now is how virtual agents know what to speak about and articulate intelligent conversations. To put it simply, virtual agents seem to be able to remember details from previous conversations with the same person. 

The main difference between early chatbots and virtual human beings is the latter’s requirement for prerequisite technologies to function. The virtual agents that will populate the metaverse will be independent, three-dimensional objects that are very similar to the non-realistic chatbots and voice bots commonly used today, such as Siri and Alexa, in how they reference information. This indicates that virtual agents have content-specific, unscripted conversations with human beings by providing purposeful context-based dialogue.    

Essentially, artificially intelligent chatbots and virtual agents are much alike in their core functions. Both deploy the use of AI, retrieval, and generative-driven methods to engage in conversational interactions that assist users. There's not much that separates traditional chatbots from their newer iterations. Today’s virtual agents still hold the same core technology as text-based chatbots. Only in the metaverse, they'll be repackaged into graphically rich 3D models that are humanized and provide the user with a greater sense of presence and personality.

Virtual humans are simply physical manifestations of chatbots that will populate the metaverse and act as travel agents, assistants, buddies, and educators, to name a few. Virtual agents will provide an added layer of realism with their presence in the metaverse. They will be able to communicate naturally, their wider use of AI, machine learning, natural language processing (NLP) capabilities, and conversational training data proving intuitive and adaptive to human input. 

The ultimate non-player characters (NPCs) use contemporary features like these that give them the qualities and qualifications to be defined as 'human-like’—albeit virtual. Created through the convergence of conversational and generative AI with high-fidelity 3D modeling and animation, virtual agents blur the psychological lines between simplistic robots and perceptive human-like androids. When these components are combined, virtual agents enable meaningful and lasting relationships that enhance educational processes and close the gap between us and our virtual counterparts.

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Potential Applications Of Virtual Agent Technology

As industry 4.0 fuses the physical and digital worlds together, the next relevant step is an enhanced, lifelike online user experience. 

This is precisely what virtual agent technology hopes to achieve with a growing number of use cases and applications:   

Metaverse Virtual Companions 

Metaverse virtual companions are among the most popular use cases for virtual agents. We live in an age where remote and hybrid working practices are increasingly popular, and the metaverse represents a playground for real hybrid interactions. Some say that the future of work is contained within the metaverse. 

Let's find out how true that is by using virtual companions as an example. 

Our current experiences with virtual companions are limited to web and desktop applications, with the digital workforce mostly seen as bots, robots, workflows, etc. This idea limits teamwork and collaboration for people that want a more immersive experience. Virtual agent technology seeks to bring the two opposing ends of the spectrum together into a new reality. Developers are building no-code solutions for process automation and are bringing these workflows into the metaverse. This means that metaverse users will now have the chance to hire, train, and deploy AI-powered virtual companions to perform mundane tasks. 

Think J.A.R.V.I.S. for Ironman. It’s a powerful AI that functions as Tony Stark’s assistant that runs and takes care of the internal systems of Stark’s buildings and Iron Man Suit. Virtual agents will act in much the same way and assist us in the metaverse. There are a lot of tasks that can be handled by virtual companions and a lot of money to be made by companies that build and deploy them.  

More Realistic NPCs For Gameplay

When the principles of virtual agents are applied to NPCs (Non-Playable Characters), you have more original, immersive, and engaging gameplay. These NPCs will essentially feel like multiplayer if they work well and will create the illusion of playing with an actual person. NPCs use scripted multiple-choice questions in today’s cutting-edge video games with occasional video cut scenes to provide realistic gameplay scenarios. In the future, NPCs that utilize virtual agent technology will be able to have live voice conversations with hyperrealistic emotions and reactions. 

Humanoid NPCs will utilize sophisticated AI-powered algorithms to provide players with lifelike characters that react with genuine purpose to in-game scenarios. Everything from facial expressions, body motions, gestures, and other non-verbal cues will add a new dimension to gameplay design.This impact compounds with each NPC, resulting in the game world feeling truly open, dynamic, and unique.

Krafton, the makers of PUBG, recently announced that they are creating virtual agents utilizing the power of Unreal Engine and artificial intelligence (AI). These virtual agents are being dubbed “CGI actors” and will be barely distinguishable from real humans. Hyper-realism technology is being used to convey deeply-expressive emotions that real-life humans can interact with. One day, the hope is that players will be able to communicate directly with NPCs in a meaningful way that enhances the depths of immersive gameplay (especially in the metaverse). 

Several new cases are materializing in the gaming industry through storytelling with digital avatars. Companies such as Fable AI and Baobab are developing interactive stories with virtual agent characters. In Fable AI’s case, they are building next-gen AI authoring tools that enable players to create characters who can live, learn, and make decisions with us. Virtual agent technology is starting to blur the lines between playing a game and watching a movie by removing some of the restrictions from our physical spaces, allowing us to feel deeper immersion and connection.         

Training For Enterprises

At present, corporate training may be considered dull and uninspired. It usually takes place in the form of online cartoons, video tutorials, or occasional quizzes that lack substance and long-term measurable benefits. Research on the Ebbinghaus Memory Model ‘forgetting the curve’ shows that, on average, people forget up to 50% of what they learn in corporate training environments. Within 24 hours, they lose up to 70% of new information. Not only that, in-person training sessions with live instructors, travel, venues, and food can be costly and inefficient. 

This shows that there is a window of opportunity for virtual agents to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and revolutionize the corporate learning environment. The metaverse has the potential to get the best of both worlds. Virtual agents have the means to make monotonous training sessions more effective and efficient. At first, they'll be teaching assistants or graders, but eventually, they may take over instructional duties. Looking into the future, they may even provide a superior training experience than physical training because virtual agents can be lifelike subjects in a simulation, for example, workplace HR training. 

The benefits of learning and education within the metaverse are monumental. New-gen education takes interactivity to the next level and provides students with fully immersive classes, assignments, and homework. Pair that with the capabilities of virtual agent technology, and you get empowered learners who can seamlessly interact with their virtual counterparts for guidance, skills practice, and feedback.    

In fact, in the SaaS world, digital adoption platform (DAP) providers are investing heavily in solutions that incorporate the use of virtual agents into their user interfaces (UI). “Metaverse mixed-reality learning experiences represent a form of disruptive innovation that can significantly optimize training, development, and real learning,” Ed Beltran, CEO of Fierce Conversations, said in a recent interview. “With companies increasingly moving to remote or hybrid workplace environments, executives not only appreciate the need—but are wholeheartedly embracing—new approaches to train, sustain and develop their teams in order to stay agile and competitive.”

The metaverse provides new prospects that enable enterprise organizations to leverage digital learning solutions within an expansive ecosystem. The metaverse is the perfect educational vessel for corporate learning and development because it puts dominion back into the hands of the end-user by empowering them to take control of their own culture of learning. As the physical and virtual realms blur to become one, we can expect to see more immersive, interactive, and captivating training experiences emerge, especially with virtual agent technology clearly on the horizon.  

Scalable Social Media/Influencer Marketing 

It’s no secret that the metaverse is an opportunity for big brands to capitalize on their online presence. Some brands have already caught onto the trend and are creating computer-generated, virtual influencers that are extremely convincing. 

The trend toward virtual influencers has been growing steadily for a while now. As the internet grows and takes new forms, brands are looking for imaginative ways to reach new audiences. And with Gen Z being a target demographic for many large corporations, it is no surprise that virtual agents are falling conveniently onto their laps and into their overall marketing agendas.     

We’ve identified the four main benefits of virtual influencers: 

  1. Offer cost-saving opportunities associated with content creation and administration. 
  2. Effective at reaching younger, consumer-driven audiences. 
  3. Significantly limit risk exposure by offering more control. 
  4. Easily incorporated into existing metaverse strategies. 

One of the biggest questions yet to be answered is whether influencers in the metaverse will be based on real people or original creations. 

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Ethical Concerns With Virtual Agents 

One of the most important parts of virtual presence within the newly formed metaverse is responsible usage and digital ethics. Virtual Reality (VR) has the potential to make society a better place to inhabit. It can be the precursor that inspires social change or even help to train doctors for complex medical surgeries. 

However, some social issues could materialize down the line that we’ve listed below: 

1. How Should Humans Design, Deploy, & Treat Virtual Agents?

Virtual agents are developed using human decision criteria, which means that aspects of ethical behavior must be implemented in the creation process. However, designing appropriate ethics and standards are often intricate and complicated affairs. Riek and Howard suggest that the following design considerations should be taken into account when developing robots for human interaction: 

  • Reasonable transparency in the programming of robotic systems
  • Predictability in robotic behavior
  • Trustworthy system design principles across hardware and software design
  • Opt-out mechanisms

Currently, there isn’t much legal guidance surrounding the development of virtual agents, and ethical policies proposed by governments, universities, and professional bodies fail to consider the challenges and obstacles of ethics associated with virtual agents.  

2. What Moral Capacities Should A Virtual Agent Have? 

In 2017, The Guardian reported that the European Parliament drafted a set of regulations to govern the use and creation of robots, virtual agents, and artificial intelligence (AI). Machine morality, specifically related to virtual agents, examines problems around robot moral capacities and how these can be implemented. People are still debating whether virtual agents and robots should have emotions and empathy. For example, a report from the Oxford Press proposes that empathy isn’t required for moral judgment, whereas moral judgment involves emotion.

Engaging with virtual agents enables human beings to connect with technology emotionally without the need to respond in the same way. This type of interconnected relationship is becoming more apparent as technology progresses and poses questions about what it means to be human. Linguist Bertram F Malle argues. 

“Any robot that collaborates which supports, or cares for humans—in short, a social robot—poses serious ethical challenges to the human design and deployment of such robots, and one of the most important challenges is to create a level of moral competence in these robots that is adequate to the application at hand.” 

3. Real Human Beings Exploiting Virtual Agents

Because virtual agents can be utilized for inconsequential training and testing purposes, this raises concerns over ways humans can abuse and pervert this seemingly insignificant feature. For example, this plays out in HBO’s popular sci-fi TV series Westworld, where highly advanced artificial intelligent humanoids are programmed to roleplay within a fantasy world and are at the mercy of mankind’s worst behaviors. In the metaverse, a similar scenario could play out with the proliferation of virtual agents–albeit on a much less fanatical scale. 

There have been real-world examples and studies that imply societal attitudes toward one another in the real world could shift negatively if exposed to features that cultivate environments free of consequences–such as the ability to hold unbridled control over non-sentient virtual agents. The Journal of Behavioral Robotics reveals that it’s not uncommon for humans to exhibit abusive behaviors towards robots.

Similar to the way SmarterChild AIM of the early 2000s became a punching bag for adolescent teens testing the parameters of newly emergent AI by hurling profanity and obscenities, if parameters aren’t set up that address the potential for unethical behavior in the metaverse, it could lead to a lawless environment that encourages damaging conduct beyond the digital realm.

If you enjoyed reading this piece, check out our article on How Imagination Is Building The Metaverse