The explosion of virtual beings

Above: Lil Miquela is an artificial influencer who has 2.3 million followers on Instagram.

Image Credit: @Lilmiquela on Instagram

Since Saatchi’s first Virtual Beings Summit in July 2019, we have seen an explosion of these projects that are taking very different forms. Replika is a text messaging bot that has millions of users who believe the bot is like a virtual best friend. It’s like a form of therapy with enormous potential, Saatchi said.

“You have an ongoing digital conversation with your Replika,” Saatchi said.

Investor Cyan Bannister of Founders Fund has bankrolled a lot of these projects. She saw a virtual concert put on by a Japanese virtual character, Hatsune Miku, and was fascinated with how she could draw crowds.

One of her investments is Brud. On Instagram, you can follow the virtual life of Brud’s Lil Miquela, an artificial influencer who has 2.3 million followers on Instagram.

Beyond that, you can have a conversation with Deepak Chopra via a project being created by AI Foundation. The celebrity musician Grimes created a digital avatar of herself. MuseNet is an AI that creates its own music, like a new Mozart composition. Genies lets celebrities cash in on animated clones of themselves. Saatchi thinks virtual beings in this space have enormous potential.

Virtual Immortality is resurrecting deceased actor James Dean for a computer-generated imaging (CGI) performance in a new film.

“I just think that’s fantastic,” Saatchi said. “A lot of people obviously think that’s terrible. Artistically, that’s so fascinating to think about a new performance.”

The Wave has virtual concerts where a real performer like John Legend is driving a motion-captured animated character. Netflix will likely move deeper into interactive, as it did with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, with interactive experiences that are part game and part live action. Facade is an example of an interactive story game that is very conversational.

On the not-so-good side, deep fakes are being used to make real people say things they never said.

“I think this is an interesting moment for us where we can see the beginning of a new movement,” Saatchi said. “Each of these comes with controversy.”

The intersection of virtual beings and games

Motion capture for digital character Lucy of Wolves in the Walls.

Above: Motion capture for digital character Lucy of Wolves in the Walls.

Image Credit: Fable Studios

Bannister said at the first Virtual Beings Summit that she would love to have a conversation with her grandmother again, but her grandmother passed away. The startup HereAfter is trying to make that kind of conversation happen, across the divide of death. Saatchi noted that his own children won’t have a chance to meet his mother, because she has passed away.

“It will change human psychology, quite a lot,” Saatchi said, if you could have a conversation with someone who died.

These interactions could yield powerful emotional moments associated with virtual beings, and that could benefit games in particular, Saatchi said.

“We’re pretty close to being at the point where we are able to get these things done,” Saatchi said. “Interactive entertainment is getting more cinematic and story driven. There are empathy games and narrative games. That’s going to be very exciting. When you see how much people connect to or love interactive characters like Ellie in The Last of Us, you can see that looking to the virtual beings community will be very important.”

SpiritAI is helping companies create non-player characters who appear to be like real humans, so the hundreds of characters you may come upon in a game will make it feel more immersive, not fake. Speech Graphics is creating facial animation that is AI driven.

Game designers have focused on “emergent gameplay,” where the events in a game aren’t scripted but emerge from what the player does. These types of games are more immersive because the player feels like they’re in a real world, where anything can happen. But Saatchi said much of that is based on environment-based gameplay, like how enemies might spawn in a part of the world where you don’t expect.

But “character-based gameplay” is more of a rarity, and that’s something the virtual beings community is focused on, he said.

“It would be cool to see emergent gameplay where the characters are changing in an unpredictable way,” Saatchi said.