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Fiction Science Club

Avatars return to the movies ⁠— and find a real-life foothold

Thirteen years after the original “Avatar” movie came out, the idea of human minds inhabiting alien bodies is returning for an amped-up sequel ⁠— and since 2009, real-life efforts to create robotic avatars have advanced at least as much as computer-aided filmmaking has.

Oscar-winning director James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” returns to Pandora, a far-off exomoon where the peaceful, blue-skinned Na’vi people are menaced by human invaders who are capable of getting into their skin. The film is a visual mind-blower, combining elements of underwater documentaries, video games and the movie that earned Cameron his Oscar: “Titanic.”

The idea of a human taking charge of an alien body via virtual reality is pure science fiction — but if you replace the fictional Na’vi with a robot, you get the premise for the ANA Avatar XPRIZE, which gave out its top awards at the $10 million competition’s finals in November.

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, we focus on the parallels between the science-fiction vision embodied in the Avatar movies and the future-tech vision that roboticists are pursuing through the Avatar XPRIZE and other efforts. Someday, robotic avatars could well transform space exploration as well as life back here on Earth.