How We Designed vTime for Diversity #IWD2017

The vTime Community is global and diverse. In late 2016, we redesigned our avatar creation system to reflect the uniqueness of each of our users, breaking down gender stereotypes in the process. For International Women's Day 2017, vTime designer Beki Sutcliffe explains how she took on the task of making our avatars as diverse as our users.   

"When vTime first launched in December 2015, the avatar customization system was very simple. After selecting either a male or female avatar, you could customize their hair style and color, eye color, skin color, and outfit to create an avatar that you could identify with, and your friends could recognize in a session. Our aim was to provide easy-to-make, easily identifiable, fun avatars.

In vTime your avatar represents you in the virtual world. The vTime community is diverse, interesting, and unique. Therefore the avatars that it is possible to create should be too. From launch it was - and still is - important to us to expand and improve upon the existing avatar system to give us - and our users - more freedom and choice. It was for this reason that we decided to release a complete overhaul of the avatar editor in September last year.

To begin with, we wanted to remove the first step in the original avatar editor, which asked the user to choose one of two options: male or female. This choice then determined the options available in the appearance and outfit categories. For the early access release of vTime we had limited time and resources, and asking the user to choose their gender was the quickest and easiest way for the system to work.

However, a user’s gender is a complete irrelevance in vTime. How the user identifies is not important, as long as they feel they can represent themselves. It was an unnecessary question to ask which may have made some users feel uncomfortable. In the real world, we are not restricted to particular hair styles or items of clothing, so we felt it was important that our avatars should not be either. We identified the question of gender as a problem - supported by feedback from the community - and in our redesign of the avatar editor, replaced the gender ‘gate’ with two new systems: a selection of archetypes, and a selection of body shapes.

Whilst trying to give our users as much choice as possible, we still wanted it to be quick and easy to make a great-looking avatar in virtual reality. We designed 36 archetypes to choose from as the first step in creating your new virtual self, as well 24 different body shapes. This allowed for avatars with smaller and larger builds, in addition to subtleties in shoulder, waist, and hip measurements.  With these changes we could remove the question of gender and create a more nuanced system which represented a wider spectrum of people than ever before.

When it came to choosing your outfit, we felt strongly that any avatar should be able to wear any item of clothing without restriction. Any wardrobe additions are now built to fit all body shapes. This means your avatar can wear the kind of outfit you would feel comfortable in, regardless of whether that’s a tuxedo, a dress, high heels, or a hoodie and jeans. At times this has been a development challenge, but one we feel it’s important to dedicate the time to.

While we’ve come a long way from the original vTime avatar system, there are still so many other things that we’d love to add or improve. In the future we’ll be looking to add more body shapes with varying levels of muscle mass, tattoos and body modifications, make-up, complexion options, accessories and much more - with the ultimate goal of making vTime somewhere you can feel proud to be yourself."

Beki Sutcliffe (Design)