FOX ‘s Alter Ego: A Mixed Reality Competition Show from Producers Who Don’t Understand Avatars or Why Virtual Worlds Make Them Real
Above: Pop star Grimes, who believes reality is a virtual world created by an omniscient AI, explains how Alter Ego works
Months after its producers began scouting among the Second Life community for avatar-based performers, the avatar-based reality competition show Alter Ego is here: Watch on Fox TV’s site.
I just saw the first episode and I have mixed feelings about its mixed reality presentation. Fundamentally, the whole concept seems to be directed at an audience who don’t quite understand how virtual world avatars work, created by producers who definitely don’t know how they work. Which is strange, because the vast majority of the show’s target Gen Y/Z audience (I’m tempted to say all of them) have an avatar in Fortnite and other virtual worlds.
Speaking of which, as I suspected, the show uses Unreal, the graphics engine that also runs Fortnite:
To film, Alter Ego relies on 14 cameras, eight of which use advanced camera-tracking technologies. “It’s not something that’s done in post,” creative producer Michael Zinman — who previously partnered with Fox on The Masked Singer — tells Rolling Stone on the still-empty studio floor. Above our heads, thousands of Infrared Reflective (IR) markers — one-inch-by-one-inch silver squares that, essentially, create a map for these cameras — twinkle like a mini galaxy. The smart cameras then communicate with Unreal Engine, a video-game design software [sic!], to render the avatars in real time.
… The problem is, outside a virtual world context like Fortnite, the Unreal avatars seem strange and disconnected from the live audience and judges.
And while I like the concept of real people who were previously afraid to perform in real life, afraid they’d be judged on their real life appearance because they don’t fit the expected mold… that’s already a core concept to the reality show competition format! (Hello, Susan Boyle became famous for that very reason back in 2009.)
No: The magic of avatars is not the 3D graphics in and of itself, but the immersive social context of the virtual world in which they appear. It’s why hundreds if not thousands of people now have full-time professions as performers in countless virtual worlds.
I’m hopeful the show succeeds but it’s hard to see that happening, especially after the mocap gimmick wears off. Again, it’s still missing the opportunity of recruiting virtual world-based performers like Skye Galaxy from Second Life or TFMJonny from VRChat to appear, bringing those worlds’ fanbases with them. to cheer them on. But maybe that’s coming up in later episodes.
If the show survives long enough, that is, because… yikes:
I’m working on the assumption that Alter Ego will be canned after a single episode, because for my own sake I have to place some faith in mankind. But if it isn’t, and this wretched series eventually ends up with a winner, then who will actually become famous? Is it the shy, fallible human who performs backstage with a camera stuck to their forehead? Or is it their perfect avatar? For the life of me, I hope it’s the former. Singing competitions have always carried a sheen of exploitation to them, so imagine how much worse it would be when you’re put to work as the workhorse component of a cartoon fairy. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Hand on heart, Alter Ego is the worst thing I have seen on television in a decade. Please, someone, fire this monstrosity into the sun so it cannot hurt us any more.
A very special thank you to Wagner James and nwn for this opinion post.
Have a Great week from all of us at Zoha Islands and Fruit Islands