Why can’t we have legs in the metaverse?

Why can’t we have legs in the metaverse?
Screenshot: Meta
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The metaverse is a legless place. In the early glimpses we’ve gotten at the virtual reality (VR) worlds crafted by Facebook parent company Meta, cartoonish avatars float above the ground with nothing but heads, torsos, and arms. Only a faint shadow marks the spot where their feet might otherwise stand.

Why have waist-up avatars become our default representations in the metaverse? The short answer is: Modeling the movements of our legs would require extra sensors, and those sensors are expensive and cumbersome. Executives at Meta, which now controls about 90% of the virtual reality market, have determined that legs simply aren’t worth the extra cost.

Old Friends. New Fun. | Meta Quest 2

But it’s interesting to think about why legs aren’t worth the cost, at least from Meta’s perspective. For now, Meta is marketing its virtual reality headsets as mainly a workplace collaboration tool. If you’re staging a business meeting in the metaverse, it’s important to have a face to present to your teammates and clients. You need arms to gesture at items a presentation slide or point out key elements of a diagram. Legs, however, just sit inert and unseen beneath a conference table. They do not generate economic value—and so, regrettably, they must be amputated.

The technical challenge of modeling legs in the metaverse

Legs are a hard problem for a virtual reality engineer. Hands and arms are relatively easy: their movement is captured by the handheld controllers and the headset sensors, which can also see a person’s shoulders, elbows, and hands. But from the vantage point of a headset camera, it’s tough to see all the way down to a person’s hips, knees, and feet consistently.

Instead, a VR device would have to rely entirely on data from motion sensors strapped to a person’s legs or data from an external camera that has a full-body view of the user. Either option would be costly. Hand controllers for Meta’s Quest 2 VR device sell for $69 each; assuming leg sensors cost a similar amount, it’s hard to imagine many customers would want to pay an extra $140 to give their avatar legs when they’re already paying at least $400 just for a headset and hand controllers. Plus, strapping on leg sensors or setting up a camera to capture full body movement would add another annoyance to setting up the device.

Simulating fake legs in the metaverse hasn’t gone well

Meta has abandoned the idea of capturing users’ actual leg movements entirely. Instead, the company wants to let its VR devices simulate their owners’ legs, as Meta chief technology officer Andrew Bosworth explained in a Feb. 10 Q&A on his Instagram page. “We could fake it and no one would know the difference,” Bosworth said.

Other virtual reality platforms, such as VRChat, have tried simulating fake leg movements as Bosworth proposed. It doesn’t always work. In a 2020 post in the VRChat support forum, one user complained that their avatar’s “legs have been glitching…and when she crouches she spreads her legs in a very unflattering manner.” Similar posts titled “Leg problems” on Reddit and the forums for the game hosting website Steam also complain about glitchy simulated legs contorted into unnatural positions that disrupt users’ experience of the virtual world.

Virtual legs are nothing but a liability

Many virtual reality companies have launched their products first as enterprise tools for remote work, hoping that corporate clients can stomach the high price of VR headsets better than average consumers can. And in Meta’s demonstrations of what the world of VR work might look like, workers are perfectly content without their legs.

Horizon Workrooms - Remote Collaboration Reimagined

Their legless torsos hover around conference tables, chatting and gesturing with their arms. Sometimes, they float next to each other at a whiteboard, ignoring their lower bodies as they use their hands to draw. Work never seems to stop because someone can’t watch their colleague fold one leg over the other or spot their knee bouncing with nervous energy during a meeting.

Legs simply don’t have an economic justification at a desk job—which is to say nothing of butts or crotches, which are an outright liability in a work setting. As Lyta Gold points out in a recent essay for The Baffler, “if metaverse avatars stop at the waist, you don’t have to worry about all those inconvenient genitalia.” Meta has vowed to create “almost Disney levels of safety” on its platform, including enabling four foot “Personal Boundary” buffers around every avatar by default, in response to women being virtually groped and harassed in early beta tests.

Legless avatars, then, are the metaverse’s answer to companies’ real world constraints. They give workers a sanitized way to interact with each other without sacrificing productivity and at minimal cost. They aren’t a bug, but a feature of Meta’s fantasy of a perfect workplace.