Virtual assistants are moving from science fiction films into our lives.
A few years ago, virtual clones of people could only be found in movies, and the first real developments were perceived as something impractical. Now they are used in business on a par with voice assistants. In this article, we will look at how the first avatars appeared, where they are used, and when digital personalities will become an integral part of our lives.
Start of the technology development
The idea of using digital avatars in life and the technology for creating them appeared thanks to science fiction films. According to the plot of the 2002 film "Simona", the director cannot finish filming due to a conflict with the actress. He is assisted by a programmer who developed the virtual simulator S1mulation 0ne. With its help, the actress Simona - S1m0ne - is created, who does an excellent job and gets an Oscar. In that film, the avatar is played by the model Rachel Roberts, since they did not know how to make real three-dimensional digital characters yet.
Full-fledged virtual characters first appeared in the 2009 film Avatar. The director had to postpone the release of the film for 10 years until the right technology appeared. In 2006, Weta Digital, founded by director Peter Jackson, began working on 3D characters and other visual effects. It was real rocket science. It was for Avatar that the team developed facial motion retargeting technology to transfer human facial expressions to 3D characters and Light stage equipment for motion capture.
The author of technologies received two Oscars for them and then went to work at the University of Auckland. There, for several years, he developed digital androids, artificial intelligence 3D models that communicated with people through a webcam and microphone. In 2016, the developer launched a startup Soul Machines and began to offer digital androids for business development.
The first startup avatar was BabyX in 2017. This is a unique 3D model of a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter of a developer. With the help of this technology, you can interact like a real child, attract attention, show pictures in books, and ask to read words. Thanks to artificial intelligence, the avatar learns and responds to stimuli. Sagar designed everything so that her emotions worked like a human, like the release of neurotransmitters in the brain.
Soul Machines offers companies products to create their avatars, such as HumanOS for example. Other developers around the world are engaged in similar technologies. Including SberDevices. People with artificial intelligence are used as virtual assistants, company employees, and digital copies of celebrities.
There are now two types of avatars. These are either realistic digital characters controlled by humans or fully automated robots that interact with humans through neural networks.
4 steps to creating an avatar
Creation of a realistic 3D model
If earlier faces and bodies were made by hand, now there are many automated programs for modeling graphics. For example, based on subsurface scattering technology, realistic skin is obtained.
The shooting of the actor, capturing body movements and facial expressions
3D models are made movable using CGI computer animation. They shoot a prototype actor to then convey his facial expressions and gestures to the avatar. Special equipment captures movement, focusing on the reflections of light rays.
Connect neural networks
First of all, artificial intelligence is used to improve 3D models. Neural networks trained on real images make avatars realistic. Machine learning also helps the character to synthesize speech, enables him to understand human speech, and develops emotional intelligence based on the behavioral and speech patterns of people.
The game engine is programmed
While working on the screen or in virtual reality devices, the avatar is controlled by engines, like in computer games.
Virtual workplaces and digital workers
In the next several years, employees of remote companies will have digital avatars, predicts the head of XCOM Labs. Instead of observing each other in Zoom, employees will fully participate in meetings using virtual and augmented reality technologies. We are talking not only about 3D models of people but also about the possibilities of joint work of avatars: in the virtual space between team members there will be images of projects and tools for working with them.
The world's largest holdings such as Apple and Google are already developing office avatars. The development of this direction depends on the emergence of more compact and powerful devices for virtual reality, as well as on the speed of implementation of communication standards 5G and 6G. According to statistics, by 2030 in the world, about 23 million people will use virtual reality technologies at work. For example, for meetings, training, and customer service. But in 2019, less than 1 million used this opportunity.
Besides, companies are using artificial intelligence to create full-fledged replacements for people. So, in 2018, the largest bank in Switzerland, UBS, introduced a digital clone of Investment Director Daniel Kalt. Avatar works as a consultant and provides clients with analytics of the global economy and selected markets. With its help, the bank wants to study how convenient it is for users to receive various services from virtual personalities.
Avatars for companies
Avatars are replacing real persons, becoming brand ambassadors. Of course, famous actors, singers, and TV presenters represent products to a wide audience well, but outside of the contract with the brand, they live their own lives and have their public image. As a result, harsh statements and scandals involving ambassadors also affect the image of brands.
There are no such risks with digital avatars. Companies can fully control the communication of virtual representatives. Also, they can be integrated into digital products as assistants. For example, in 2019, Sberbank's Robotics Lab created an avatar for Elena. Now it is being developed by the SberDevices team. Elena is a virtual TV presenter, her realistic image and speech are made using neural networks. She already runs news releases for publications, and sometimes even helps with events.
Making avatars like this can be an independent entertainment business. The first virtual performers in the music industry were Gorillaz, founded in 1998. In the videos, the group was portrayed as 2D animation, and the songs for it were composed by real people. Nevertheless, a personality was developed for each participant, and their creativity existed in a specially designed universe.
There are full-fledged virtual celebrities today. For example, in 2016, Lil Miquela appeared. He is a digital personality who talks about himself on social networks, releases music, and appears in advertisements for fashion brands. In 2018, Lil Miquela entered the TOP 25 most influential people on the Internet. The avatar girl is a 3D model, but she does not have artificial intelligence, her behavior is controlled by real people. Yet her success has inspired innovative entrepreneurs to create fully automated digital stars.
Also appeared the model Shudu, which already has 7 celebrities who star in advertisements for famous brands. In 2019, the venture capital company Betaworks invested in such startups. It is expected that shortly, digital stars will work entirely on neural networks. They will be able to take photos, write texts, and communicate with fans on social networks.
In 2020, at one of the robotics exhibitions, the STAR Labs laboratory presented its Neon avatars. Judging by the presentation, the avatars turn out to be realistic, but the corporation's products do not yet reach the level of modern virtual assistants. They won't be able to play music or tell about the weather. STAR Labs positions them as companions who can gradually accumulate memories.
Neon is a video chatbot that looks and communicates like real people. They are good at keeping up a conversation, learning, and showing emotion. And in the future, they must become so advanced as to be teachers, concierges, financial and medical consultants. Such avatars, unlike most virtual assistants, will be aimed at solving specific problems. Neon will be able to become friends, co-workers, and companions who constantly learn and retain memories.
All this makes you wonder when technology will become available to more people. According to the developers, after 2027, avatars will live in homes and work with people, just like in futuristic films. Realistic home assistants are already being created, and technology is becoming more affordable as companies are working to make avatars help us in our daily lives.