Roblox’s avatars are about to get more expressive
Roblox users will soon have the ability to give their avatars facial expressions similar to the player’s, the platform announced today.
The update, announced today at the Roblox Developer Conference, will be available only to select creators on the platform for now, but is expected to be widely available to all Roblox users by early 2023.
Roblox, an online game platform on which people can either play games or create them, has 52.2 million users per day. The company’s initial demographic was minors, but in recent years it has become a popular destination for teens and young adults, and over half its users are now over 13. The rich and varied virtual worlds created by the site are a precursor to what might be seen and experienced in the metaverse. There are opportunities for connection with others and personalized avatars that can be used across games.
The update is similar to Bitmoji on the Apple iPhone. It uses depth sensing technology to track facial movements and measure head height. Previous avatars on Roblox have had expressions, but Bjorn Book-Larsson, vice president of product and avatars at Roblox, described them as “two-dimensional.”
The Roblox update would mean users could smile, wink, or scrunch their forehead, and their avatar would mimic them in real time. The update would allow users to scan their eyes, shake their heads, and have eyebrows and ears that wiggle. Roblox claims that users will soon be able speak with other avatars, just like in other multiplayer videogames. The changes could blend our real-world experience with the metaverse, and make avatars more like us–for better and worse.
Until early 2023, these updates will be kept within a tight circle of users and creators, which Book-Larsson says is meant to maintain “trust and safety.” “We expect the unexpected,” he says. Roblox’s safety team must be able to ensure that expressions are safe for its large user base of minors. Book-Larsson explains that sticking your tongue out, which was one of the options for facial expressions, was scrapped due to its potential misuse as a sexual overture.
One expert says Roblox must be careful about how expressions across cultures are read. “Reading a smile to be happy is a Western stereotype,” Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist who wrote .How Emotions are Made. Since 44.7% of Roblox users live in non-Western countries, that’s a valid concern.
Book-Larsson says that smiles and other expressions communicating happiness are the most popular ones on Roblox now. In some cultures, a smile may be used to invite or ask for help. Even though the two players may be from Western countries, they might experience a smile in a different way. It could be menacingly or as sarcasm.
Book Larsson states that he understands the potential consequences of avatars being more expressive and points out that this is part of why the rollout has been so slow. Feldman Barrett also points out that verbal communication is crucial for emotional understanding. Book-Larsson predicts that avatars will soon be able communicate via voice chat. He says, “We want it to be safe.” “We’re about to find out.”
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.