How to thrive in an age of digital humans

By Gael Seydoux
Gael Seydoux, Director of Research & Innovation at InterDigital explores why digital twins might help us thrive in a physically disconnected world

The internet has created a paradox where humans are simultaneously more connected and disconnected than ever. With access to high-speed internet, we have the world available at our fingertips, yet social distancing has deprived the world of travel and human connections.

By nature, humans adapt, and while we’ve become adjusted to a more remote lifestyle, we’ve also become highly sensitive to the impact that international and domestic travel has on the environment.

Once social distancing is a distant memory, its certain that people are going to remain more physically disconnected. To enable this lifestyle, we’ll see more virtually enhanced communication beyond video calls—a more radical solution is required to emulate the traits of physical communication digitally. 

The digital human is not a new concept. Neal Stephenson talked about 3D avatars interacting in a digital environment in 1992—he called it the metaverse.

The idea was also revisited in 2011 in Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. With innovations in facial rendering software, collaboration tools and virtual reality (VR), fully realised digital twins are fast becoming a reality and could be a solution to the global disconnect. 

But digitally re-creating the vital elements of human interaction, from eye contact to slight facial gestures, is no easy feat. But as the world starts to see the merit in digital interaction, we’ll start to see more innovation. 

Digital humans: The next step in human interaction

The way we work and interact has changed indefinitely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many businesses have adopted, and will continue to maintain, a hybrid work approach, where collaboration tools are the foundation of this dual-working environment.

These technologies were instrumental in maintaining businesses during lockdowns, enabling employees and customers to interact. But in the long-term, when it comes to social interaction, these tools are not a perfect solution.

As businesses look ahead to long-term solutions, many are exploring experimental forms of collaboration and support, including the use and implementation of extended reality (XR) technologies. Although remote working will be here to stay, people still crave human interaction.

Businesses also need to find a solution to networking effectively. Virtual conferences have been a temporary solution during the pandemic, but as ‘Zoom fatigue’ sets in, augmented reality (AR) and VR enhancements will increase in demand and be innovated upon until we get a future with fully realised digital humans. 

The digital human will allow people to replicate a version of themselves in a virtual environment. This will help people collaborate and work together from any remote location. From the perspective of hybrid working, businesses with a fixed office will no longer need its workers in a fixed location. They will be able to expand their talent base to areas not thought possible, giving opportunities to more people.

Workers from any location could have the ability to remain connected, perhaps even eliminating the need for work visas or giving rise to new questions around global migration—anyone with access to a digital human could work anywhere.  

Digital humans will revolutionise the way people network and collaborate. When it comes to events and conferences, organisers would need a virtual space—there would be no restrictions on tickets or physical space. And exhibitors would need to buy data rather than floor space, to showcase their product demos, which could be simulated in real time.    

The current landscape for digital humans

While the future may hold a fully realised virtual environment, today’s digital humans live through bulky VR headsets and AR enabled smartphones.

There is potential for this to be innovated upon, but cultural resistance is currently holding back mainstream adoption—VR and AR environments launched too early into the consumer market. Applications like Pokemon Go drove initial consumer adoption, but this early, immature technology showcased numerous bugs and broken physics which did not create a positive experience for users.

The same could be said for VR-enabled smartphones, which had issues including gameplay slowdown, overheating and inaccurate head tracking. As a result, the consensus still views these immersive realities as novelty technology.

That being said, there has been some success in creating virtual worlds—mostly because developing VR content with static images is easy. But creating a fully realised digital human that surpasses the ‘uncanny valley’ requires a lot more work and data.

Humans are complex, and they display a range of emotions—they blink, twitch and communicate in non-verbal ways—which means technological advancement is crucial in making digital humans convincing in a virtual environment. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) will be key to the future development of digital humans. AI systems are being taught more about how people move and react, feeding off clips and being fed data about facial movements.

It is currently being used in the entertainment sector, where we are increasingly seeing actors replicated in video games, and doubles, along with younger versions of actors, created in films. 

As VR technology becomes more culturally acceptable, it will be the standard solution for collaborative work, distance conferencing, and for many more applications.

When it comes to the workplace, we may see a future that could replace the need for physical desks. With no need for physical screens and interfaces, we will really be able to work remotely from any location. Of course, cellular coverage and connectivity are needed to support this type of technology, and the development of 5G and indeed 6G is key in this evolution. 

Digital humans will require the next generation of wireless

5G will have a big role to play in enabling mainstream use of digital humans. High-speed cellular coverage will be available over dispersed industrial environments, creating much smoother experiences when interacting in virtual environments. This higher quality of service should eliminate the perception of VR as a novelty. 

Digital humans and a more digitally enabled reality is the future, and we are only just scratching the surface of its potential. Being able to interact with humans in a digital environment will eventually become a daily tool for most professionals.

In the long term, it will become a key technology that will transcend our everyday environment, and will even eclipse mobile phones in terms of accessibility.


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