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The Sims avatar
For most of us the hugely successful virtual world game The Sims was our first foray into creating avatars that represented humans

How avatars will change your life

Meet the digi-friendly faces curing disease, providing therapy, and championing the transgender movement

We’re all itching for the next tech revolution. Smartphones are old, Google Glass was a flop, and nobody wants an Apple Watch either. All hopes lie with the much-hyped Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. VR promises us everything; digi-models, cyberporn, immersive cinema, and, most importantly, Björk’s next music video. The proto-virtual reality of our social media portals is starting to feel drab in comparison to the pixel-playground VR is going to take us to. 

It’s the all-encompassing nature of the Oculus Rift reality that makes it so enticing. Conceivably, all human experiences could be reimagined with avatars. We shouldn’t celebrate the VR revolution because the avatar world is going to supersede the human one, though. We should look forward to it because it’s going to change our world for the better.

Avatars mainly inhabit video games at the moment, but in the coming decades, it’s likely they will move beyond them. Not content with manipulating avatars in our custom-made microcosms just for fun, we’re starting to create digital doppelgängers for other purposes. To feed our avatar addiction, we’ll soon be asking them to help us cure complex diseases, combat social phobias and reach out to trans individuals through Smartphones.


Our education system shamefully ignores issues surrounding gender identity and expression, but in an era with an app for everything, avatars could soon triumph where our politicians are failing. Programmers crowdfunding for a new app, Transfigure8, want to put trans avatars in the pockets of anyone with questions about transgender and non-conforming topics. 

“Allowing students to have access to something like this could help alleviate the thoughts of being the only one,” said Lou Wearer, a transgender speaker and guiding voice to the application. “They will know they are not alone on their journey. It could help everyone get access to their questions without the fear of ridicule and rejection.”   

The group are working directly with members of the transgender community to develop the app, and say they want to share a diverse range of narratives to avoid perpetuating the myth that all trans individuals are “trapped in the wrong body”. For them, using avatars is the key to get as many stories on the app as possible, and making it accessible. 

“This also allows an individual to ask anything without the fear of saying the wrong thing and offending anyone,” said Brad Henry, the app’s developer. “From the view of an educator the only bad question is the one that is never asked.”


As our remote-controlled cyber-spirits, avatars satisfy our appetite for escapism, our urge to switch reality on standby and opt for a go-kart race with Mario, Yoshi and Princess Peach instead. Psychologists, however, reckon avatars could actually help us cope with the stresses of our daily lives, rather than just helping us escape them. 

Researchers in the Netherlands believe Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy, or VRET, could to help people overcome anxieties like a fear of flying or claustrophobia. By facing their fears a simulated environment – a virtual pub is in the pipeline – people can change how they respond to them. Someone with paranoia, for example, may choose to get off public transport if they think passengers are staring at them. In a virtual tram, they may act differently, and this could ultimately change their attitude towards the real world situation as well. 

“In the virtual world, we encourage them to respond differently,” says Professor Mark Van der Gaag, one of the researchers behind the technology. “The threshold for staying in the tram for one more stop – we intend to also create a virtual world in the tram – is lower because you know that there is no real danger. The patient realises that people eventually look away.”


Avatars could revolutionise healthcare and rejuvenate our ailing NHS with the kind of high-tech streamlining it desperately needs. In a bid to create a virtual testing-ground for drugs, scientists at the Insigneo Institute at the University of Sheffield are creating a so-called Virtual Physiological Human to simulate the effects of drugs in the body. It’s one of the most radical ways avatars could change society: helping us cure human disease, and elongating our lifespans. 

“What we’re working on here will be vital to the future of healthcare”, said Dr Keith McCormack, who leads business development at the Institute. “Candidly, without in silico medicine, organisations like the NHS will be unable to cope with demand. The Virtual Physiological Human will act as a software-based laboratory for experimentation and treatment that will save huge amounts of time and money, and lead to vastly superior treatment outcomes.”

When finished, the in silico human will be the most sophisticated computer programme ever used in medicine, and it’s unlikely that scientists will stop there. Conceivably, once we have created one in silico human, we could start to customise it, altering muscle mass, height, weight or other biological features to make amazingly detailed models of individual patients, which could be used to predict which therapies would be most effective for them.

The technology could have wider implications. If the knowledge we amass from creating the Virtual Physiological Human were combined with our understanding of artificial intelligence, it could lead to astounding changes in cyborg-tech. With enough biological data to design a life-like avatar, we could probably start humanising our robots too. It’s time to rethink robots; with the help of avatars, they may end up more like us than we’ve ever previously imagined.