Avatars become the face of sustainability



People are now able to have an out-of-body experience of a different kind and take on the persona of one of Australia’s most well-known environmentalists, thanks to a new avatar system developed at The Australian National University.

Using the latest face-tracking technology, the system allows people to control a virtual representation of Tim Flannery. Created by a group of students from the ANU College of Engineering, including PhD candidates Torben Sko and James Sheridan, the system invites people to “become” the environment scientist.

“There’s a virtual Tim Flannery in the system that people control using nothing more than their facial expressions,” explained Mr Sko. “Smile and the virtual Tim smiles, blink and he blinks. So, on this level people can virtually ‘become’ Tim.


“Using a web-camera and piece of face-tracking software, developed by local Canberra company Seeing Machines, the system picks up on whether anyone is viewing the work. The tracking software determines some key details about the viewer, such as where they are looking, what the shape of their mouth is and whether or not they\’re blinking. Using these details the virtual Tim is able to alter his expression to resemble the viewer\’s.”

Mr Sko added that the inspiration behind the project was to encourage people to take on the role of scientists or environmentalists who could help change society for the better.

“My fellow system designers and I wanted to send out a really strong message about environmental sustainability and Tim embodies this idea. He is really passionate about the environment and really wants to make a difference in this world. We\’re hoping that this work provides a way for people to learn about Tim, along with the environmental issues that he cares so deeply about.

“While viewers are ‘being’ him we hope people will learn about the real Tim Flannery, as well as the environmental issues that make him tick. We hope that people come away not only knowing a little bit more about the environmental issues facing the world today, but also how Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are helping us live in a more sustainable way.

“For example, not only are systems like Facebook and Twitter keeping us more connected than ever before, but they are also an environmentally-friendly form of communication.

“Using avatars in these largely text-based interaction systems will make them a little more human. Of course I don\’t think virtual avatars will ever replace in-the-flesh communication, but look at it this way; it produces a lot less carbon to have a virtual Tim tour around the place than flying the real man around.”