How artists help EY teams keep humans at the center of the metaverse

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How to drive meaningful engagement in the virtual world.

In brief

  • Learn more about EY metaverse lab, which creates more life-like avatars in the metaverse through its new artist-in-residence program.
  • Discover how EY teams are exploring alternatives to realistic human avatars for use in the meta

The metaverse is blazing a trail across the globe. From social media, to software, chip manufacturing and more, tech sectors are building new virtual worlds for socialization, enterprise, collaborative 3D design and many other uses. And in the video gaming space, digital landscapes are already hosting millions of gamers.

But it’s not just technology companies that seek to define this alternate reality. For EY teams, developing a deeper understanding around the metaverse’s impact on how people live, and work means stepping into this digital realm themselves.

Since June 2021, the EY metaverse lab team has been building a virtual world with a specific goal in mind: applying the full diversity of human imagination to make Ernst & Young LLP’s virtual world (EY Metaverse), as generous and welcoming as possible.

Technology by design

According to EY metaverse lab Global Lead Domhnaill Hernon, one significant challenge every metaverse builder faces is that we don’t yet have the technology to create truly natural human avatars. And while there has been significant advancement around the depiction of human skin and movement in the metaverse, avatars often miss the mark, prompting an unsettled feeling among users that many refer to as the “uncanny valley” phenomenon. “A lot of people develop technology without thinking about the human at all,” Domhnaill explained. “They think about the user and the consumer, but not about what it means to be human, how we see ourselves and how we see others.”

In June 2021, he joined Ernst & Young LLP to help chart a new course for the working world in the metaverse — with humans at the center. “What Domhnaill brings to the party is that we are trying to solve a human problem rather than a technology problem,” said EY Global Chief Customer Success Officer Edwina Fitzmaurice.

When we work with artists, what we get is deep thinking about technology through the lens of the human condition.

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.


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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.


Looking ahead


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.


As the metaverse continues to grow, leveraging the insights and knowledge of people who see the world in unique ways will be essential to drive engagement in the virtual world. By building these fresh perspectives into solutions that address common challenges around avatars, sensory perception and other features of Web 3.0, the EY metaverse lab is sparking change across both the virtual landscape and the broader working world.

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