With this in mind, the EY metaverse lab team developed a fresh approach to create more life-like avatars in the metaverse through its new artist-in-residence program. Forged in collaboration with the NEW INC incubator at the New Museum in New York City, the program is overseen by Ernst & Young LLP’s Metaverse Design practice, leveraging diverse backgrounds, education and ways of working. “When we work with artists, what we get is deep thinking about technology through the lens of the human condition. At EY, our language is ‘humans at the center.’ And artists, in my view, are the ones who take that to an extreme,” Domhnaill noted.
By design, the EY metaverse lab team works with artists in phases. During the initial residency phase, the EY team sits down with the artist to discuss key topics and challenges. Ultimately, they select both a main area of focus and a central thesis (e.g., avatars and the need for more innovative thinking around their design). Then, the team asks the artist to create a prototype that can be used for experimentation and, ultimately, proof of concept.
For the second phase of this collaboration, Domhnaill’s team builds out the artist’s work to solidify their thinking and share this new knowledge with the public. Throughout this process, the team and the artist commit to working through any areas of contention to achieve their overarching goal of accelerating innovation in the metaverse together.
Representation, identity and neurodiversity in the metaverse
One of the resident artists with the EY metaverse lab, Josie, is a Master of Fine Arts candidate and research assistant. As part of her residency project, she and the EY team explored new ways of conceptualizing and creating avatars for use in the metaverse, thinking beyond the traditional humanistic approach. Inspired by her own heritage, she designed a series of masks that serve as chatbot avatars. According to the West African tradition that sparked this idea, masks represent one’s ancestors and thus a deep connection to the past. From a user standpoint, the idea is that when we encounter familiar, comforting imagery in the metaverse, we’re more likely to engage.
For the EY metaverse lab team, these masks were an “aha” moment: “We don’t need to build avatars that are humanoid in their expression,” Domhnaill noted. “The way Josie represents AI bots through masks opened our minds to issues of accessibility, representation and identity. How do you build solutions that operate on a spectrum — where you meet people where they are in the moment, in the virtual environment of their choosing?” he continued.
The EY team is also harnessing the power of neurodivergence and diverse problem-solving through the artist-in-residence program. For example, Kate, an artist and designer who also happens to be on the spectrum, leveraged her unique way of thinking to help the EY team tackle key challenges around designing virtual worlds. Together with the EY team of creative technologists, she explored ways of diversifying users’ sensory experiences in the metaverse.
“The visual is there — and we’re visual dominant — but we’re missing spatial audio and how it affects our perception of ourselves. And touch is completely absent in those environments.” As such, Kate thinks about how to bring in elements of those experiences in new and exciting ways that were previously unimaginable. For example, she and the team have experimented with leveraging visual cues to spark a tactile sensation for metaverse users.
As Ernst & Young LLP’s artist-in-residence program continues to mature and connect with more artists, the EY metaverse lab team aims to drive deeper collaboration with EY technology and innovation hubs in continental Europe and Asia. This will help the team accelerate its key goals: enhancing human capabilities and driving greater creativity in the metaverse with an eye toward unlocking long-term value across the working world. “This is a movement,” observed Edwina.
Much like the metaverse, ideals around corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and diversity and inclusion were also once seen as niche areas before taking center stage across the working world. “We’re now at a similar moment with the arts where we can bring that to the center. It’s also good for artists, who deserve to be recognized for the value they bring to the world. So, when we put the arts in a business context, everyone wins. And we want to lead the way,” she continued.