Should everyone in your organization have their own avatar for training simulations?

Organizations are increasingly using online or virtual training for various purposes,from compliance  or ethics trainings to leadership training. As the technology used to provide these trainings advances, more of these training applications employ scenarios or simulated situations in which users can practice the principles that they learned. These simulations often depict the user though an avatar – an in-simulation representation of the user.

Avatars: Towards resemblance that is at least skin deep

Typically, these avatars are generic. Everyone gets the same avatar, chooses between a male and female avatar, or at best gets a few options to choose from. As technology advances, it becomes cheaper, easier, and faster to create avatars that actually look like their users. Scanning technologies such as those employed in the Kinect or the Wii allow users to quickly take images of themselves to be used to match their avatar to their own apperance. For example, the Wii controller allows players to capture their image to facilitate creation of their personalized avatar, the Mii.

Such scanning technology could be used to capture images of employees in order to build avatars for them. This affords the possibility that every member of an organization could have their own avatar for all virtual trainings.

Using Research to Explore Avatar Usefulness

Technological advancements are making it more feasible to scan all members of an organization to facilitate creation of personalized avatars for training purposes. However, before going to all that trouble, training departments and organizational decision-makers need to consider the effects personalized avatars might have on training. Intuition suggests there would be a benefit to having an avatar that looked like you for training, but its best to look to the evidence.

I conducted research to examine the effects of using an avatar created from scans of the actual user in a 3D training simulation. We considered whether having a personalized avatar could increase the user’s:

  •   Engagement with the simulation
  •   Connection to the avatar
  •   Liking of the avatar
  •   Enjoyment of the task/simulation
  •  Concern about the avatar getting injured during the simulation
  •  Speed to complete the task
  •  Accuracy in completing the task
  • Taking risks with the avatar in the simulated environment

Through technology, we scanned a full 3D image of all people in the study so that we could create avatars from them for use in the training simulation. Scanning was done using an ipad and a depth sensor (like a Kinect), and we created an avatar for each participant in the study. However, not everyone used their own avatar in the simulation. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: they completed the 3D simulation using their own avatar (Condition 1) or the avatar of the last participant who was their same gender (Condition 2).

The simulation was a simple maze running task. Participants had to run through a maze –with either then own avatar or someone else’s– as fast as they could while trying to avoid hitting the walls and triggering mines on the floor. Either of those errors would result in the avatar saying “ow” or “ouch” – in condition 1, this was a recording of their own voice, while in condition 2, it was a recording of that last participant’s voice.

Are Avatars Worth It?

As often happens with research, the answer is not a simple Yes versus No. First, our study showed that participants were generally much happier with an avatar that looked like them. They both liked and were connected to their own avatars to a greater extent (Condition 1) than someone else’s (Condition 2).  Additionally, they were more engaged with the simulation, and male participants also enjoyed it more when they piloted their own avatar.

However, female participants seemed to enjoy the simulation less with their own avatar. Several female participants mentioned being self-conscious about the way they looked when viewing their own avatar. Perhaps body-image concerns can explain why women tended to enjoy the simulation less in Condition 1.

Second, our study showed no effect of personalized avatars on performance. For both genders, users did not behave any differently in the simulation based on the avatar’s appearance. Specifically, participants who piloted their own avatar (Condition 1) were no faster or more accurate than those who had someone else’s avatar (Condition 2).  They didn’t complete the maze any more quickly, nor did they hit fewer walls or mines. Users were also no more cautious with their own avatars: they took no fewer risks with the avatar in the simulated environment and reported no greater concern about the avatar getting injured during the simulation.

Implications for Organizations

Should training departments and companies invest in scanning employees so they can have their own personalized avatar for virtual training simulations? Our initial study suggests that the answer depends on why. Is it to:

  •  Increase engagement with the simulation?
  •  Increase connection to and liking of the avatar?

If the answer is yes to these questions, then our research suggests organizations might benefit from personalized avatars. However, if organizations expect that having such avatars will impact performance or behavior in the training simulation, our findings do not offer support. It should be kept in mind that we used a simple maze navigation simulation, involving motor and spatial skills, eye-hand coordination, and navigating an environment. Our findings may not generalize to other types of simulations – involving more complex, interpersonal, team, or challenging scenarios.

Our findings do, however, suggest it may be important to be aware of gender differences in attitudes towards personalized avatars. Here, a final, additional word of caution is warranted: organizations may wish to consider that female members may not appreciate the simulation as much if personalized avatars trigger them to feel self-conscious. While simulations can feel more engaging when users have personalized avatars, it is not the answer to all issues in virtual training (and perhaps not for all users).

This research was published in the Proceedings of the 2016 ACM SIGGRAPH Motion in Games Conference and awarded Best Presentation.