«collaboration with people at InterDigital actually goes way back,» says Inria Director of Research Franck Multon. «For many years, we have been working together through a French instrument called Cifre PhD. This government-funded mechanism enables companies to recruit doctoral students whose research is conducted in conjunction with a public laboratory. We had many of them.»
But, in essence, it was a string of one-shot projects. So we thought we could move toward a more structured and more long-term partnership that would bring us into a strengthened momentum. Hence this decision to start a joint lab built upon a common road map. The move was also facilitated by the French government's latest stimulus package as part of the post-Covid economic recovery plan.
Head of project team MIMETIC
The partners each have major research facilities within walking distance from one another in the French tech hub of Rennes. In fact, several scientists have worked for both research centers at different stages of their careers, contributing to the close collaboration and coordination between Inria and InterDigital.
Highly complementary research
Most importantly, both research organizations conduct highly complementary research. «With regard to avatars, for instance, InterDigital has a strong expertise in simulation of facial expressions, facial 3D capture, and face stylization» said Multon. «Here at Inria Rennes, we don't cover these topics at all. But conversely, we have come up with a number of well- advanced techniques for body motion, embodiment and interaction modeling in virtual reality. These themes complement each other very well.»
Called NEMO.AI, the common lab will serve as an over-arching structure underneath which a series of specific projects ―‘challenges’ in Inria parlance― are to be initiated. The first such project will precisely focus on avatars in the context of the metaverse, a new generation of immersive environments to which people will soon start to engage in for gaming, working, social networking, training, shopping, etc.
Metaverse Industry in Need of a Standard
As InterDigital’s Research Director and Distinguished Scientist Philippe Guillotel points out,
Your avatar is a key ingredient when it comes to the metaverse. It is your own representation in the virtual environments. But today, you need a different avatar for each and every platform that you patronize. An avatar for Meta; another for Microsoft; a third for Google. You can't use the same because there is no cross-platform interoperability. There is the same problem with the objects that you might want to bring along across the metaverse. You simply can't do it
As a result, the whole industry finds itself in need of a standard. InterDigital and Inria aim to contribute their technologies to this future specification, focusing on the MPEG consortium, a standardization group of which both organizations are members. Citing the benefits of standards, Multon remarked, «By the way, we can certainly draw an analogy with the MPEG video format. When it came out, this standard did resolve all the incompatibility problems for 2D images so that, today, users can read videos regardless of the application or the device.»
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the core technologies that may help devise a cross-metaverse avatar. «We think AI is very relevant indeed,» Guillotel explained. «It enables to encode information in a smarter, very compact and highly representative fashion through so-called latent spaces. Compared to a video-based representation, an AI-based avatar comes with a huge advantage: it can be very easily edited. As a user, I can change my look, my facial expressions, the way I move, and so on.»
Still, many scientific challenges remain. «We are dealing with complex algorithms, complex systems and complex integration into metaverse infrastructures,» Guillotel added. «So we are not there yet. But ultimately, it might be right in these latent spaces where the future standard lies...»
The creation of the joint laboratory was facilitated by the economic recovery plan launched by the government after the Covid sequence. As part of this plan, the French National Research Agency (ANR) is covering 80% of the salaries of the post-doctoral students and engineers hired by Inria to work on the project for two years. The remaining 20% is paid by the industrial company. This arrangement reproduces the procedures already in place for Cifre theses. The first challenge set up in the laboratory is called YS.AI. It will allow the recruitment of several post-docs and engineers, but also PhD students. Some of them will carry out classic Cifre theses. Two will start soon. In addition, three other theses will be recruited by Inria and co-financed by the two partners.