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The ANA Avatar XPRIZE aims to promote the development of real-life avatars. (XPRIZE Illustration)

All Nippon Airways is sponsoring a $10 million, four-year competition to spur the development of real-life avatars that could provide telepresence over a span of dozens of miles.

Registration opens today for the ANA Avatar XPRIZE, with XPRIZE founder and executive chairman Peter Diamandis presiding over a high-profile kickoff at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

In a news release, Diamandis explained that our ability to experience faraway locales, or provide on-the-ground assistance where needed, is typically limited by cost and time constraints.

“The ANA Avatar XPRIZE can enable creation of an audacious alternative that could bypass these limitations, allowing us to more rapidly and efficiently distribute skill and hands-on expertise to distant geographic locations where they are needed, bridging the gap between distance, time and cultures,” he said.

Such avatars would build upon technologies pioneered by telepresence robots operating today in offices, hospitals and battle zones.

The avatar contest is the latest multimillion-dollar competition managed by XPRIZE over the course of two decades. Previous XPRIZE contests have boosted private-sector spaceflightsuper-efficient cars and hand-held medical diagnostic devices inspired by Star Trek’s tricorder.

Some XPRIZE endeavors — for example, focusing on genetic sequencing and lunar exploration — have fizzled. Others, such as the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE and the Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE, are deep into the competitive process.

All of the XPRIZE competitions are aimed at incentivizing innovation with prizes.

The winning Avatar XPRIZE team will combine state-of-the-art technologies to demonstrate a robotic avatar that allows an untrained operator to complete a series of tasks in a physical environment up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) away.

Shinya Katanozaka, president and CEO of ANA Holdings Inc., explained why it’s fitting for one of Japan’s leading airlines to sponsor the Avatar XPRIZE.

“As the sole provider of global long-distance physical transportation, the airline industry has long served as the catalyst for global relationships, business, diplomacy and mutual understanding,” he said in a statement. “However, our ability to provide this service throughout the world is limited by physical infrastructure and current technology.”

The technologies targeted by the XPRIZE could help “break through the remaining barriers that exist, to bring about an unprecedented era of physical connection, resource sharing and collaboration for a brighter future for all,” Katanozaka said.

Avatar applications could guide robotic tasks in situations that are too risky for humans, let surgeons and other trained professionals put their expertise to use in remote locations, and help friends and family members in widely separated locations keep in closer touch.

XPRIZE’s draft guidelines call on the competing avatars to address scenarios such as providing care at an assisted-living facility, picking up a shovel and helping out during a natural disaster, or performing common tech tasks such as soldering a wire or drawing lines on a printed engineering plan.

The deadline to sign up for the competition is Oct. 31, and teams must submit a complete competition plan to an independent panel of judges by next Jan. 31.

Two milestone competitions will take place in April 2020 and April 2021. Each of those rounds will offer a total of $1 million in prizes. The $8 million grand prize would be awarded in October 2021, after the finalists are put through five days of performance tests.

Competitors can call for the finals to be conducted early if they determine they can achieve the contest goals — which is a new twist in the XPRIZE process.

The avatar competition was first proposed in 2016 by an ANA team that took part in XPRIZE’s six-month concept incubator program, known as Visioneers. The concept won top honors at that year’s Visioneers Summit and was declared “ready for launch” by a group of 250 mentors.

So what’s next on the XPRIZE agenda? For what it’s worth, the highest-rated concept at last year’s Visioneers Summit focused on crowdsourcing new approaches for diagnosing, treating, curing and preventing Alzheimer’s disease.

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