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An employee logs on, spends a few minutes filming themselves speaking and gesturing, then types in text.
Later, their generated digital avatar guides workers through presentations or training sessions, answers customer questions, or handles sales requests.
This is the future of work, said Oren Aharon, CEO and founder of Hour One, whose self-service platform enables businesses to quickly and automatically create human-led video and full-fledged avatars.
“The ability to easily turn any person into a virtual character that can then be activated using just text will completely transform the way businesses and their customers engage each other,” he said. “Very soon, any person will be able to have a virtual twin for professional use that can deliver content on their behalf, speak in any language and scale their productivity in ways previously unimaginable.”
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Digital-human avatar market
Hour One — named to represent the post-COVID-19 hour that the world is living in – announced today that it has raised a $20 million series A round to introduce more “virtual humans” into the workplace.
The company is one of a burgeoning number catering to the enterprise “digital twin” market. Virtual clones that mimic real-life people and things using text, voice, video, imagery and interaction have been in use in gaming and consumer applications for some time now, but in a COVID-19 impacted world they are quickly being transitioned to business use.
The digital-human avatar market size was a little over $10 billion in 2020, according to Emergen Research. The firm forecasts this to grow to nearly $527.6 billion by 2030. This is largely being driven by the retail sector and a rising focus on providing 24/7 customer service.
All told, virtual reality and augmented reality have the potential to add $1.5 trillion to the global economy by 2030, according to PwC. These tools present a broad range of opportunities for businesses across manufacturing, healthcare, energy, retail and training and development applications and can create new customer experiences, enhance sales demos and speed up product development.
“The power and accuracy of generative AI continues to improve at an extremely rapid pace,” said Lonne Jaffe, managing director at Insight Partners, which led the Hour One funding round.
An increasing number of startups, including Hour One, are entering the market to provide digital avatars. For instance, DaveAI’s patent-pending platform aims to help drive enterprise sales with its Empathetic AI concept; and IPSoft’s Amelia has shown a 90% accuracy rate in answering hotel customer queries.
Companies including Facebook, Microsoft and IBM are also offering virtual avatars and applying them across their businesses. Neon, a subsidiary of Samsung, provides a photorealistic avatar that helps answer customer questions. Its creators expect to roll it out as a concierge and even a financial advisor or healthcare provider. The Nvidia Omniverse Avatar, meanwhile, combines foundational graphics, simulation and AI technologies as part of a virtual world simulation and collaboration platform for 3D workflows that is currently in beta with 70,000 users.
“The dawn of intelligent virtual assistants has arrived,” Jensen Huang, Nvidia’s founder and CEO, said in a press release.
Hybrid and remote workforces are here to stay, Aharon agreed. As such, video and more immersive types of media have become necessities to “preserve the human experience in virtual work environments.”
“It’s become more and more relevant to how people behave and work together,” he said. The virtual professional world is inevitable, he noted and companies can either embrace it or fall behind: “We are on the road and it will happen.”
Reals, Hour One’s AI platform, converts people into virtual characters that can be activated with lifelike expressiveness in any language. The company built its own neural networks and leverages GANs (generative adversarial networks) for this purpose. It also uses blockchain technology to verify the identity of digital characters and flag “deep fakes.”
In the Reals self-service platform, users can create video from text in just a few minutes from any mobile or desktop device. Users type in their text, which is then conveyed by an avatar talking along with matching voice and graphics. Avatars can be chosen from a cast of existing characters — roughly 100, according to Aharon — or users can create literal digital twins after a short filming session that captures their likeness.
These can then be deployed in a variety of roles: virtual receptionist, salesperson, HR representative, recruiter, trainer, language teacher.
“All of these are trying to solve the same problem of telling a story to someone, either internally or externally,” Aharon said. “It’s just the beginning of a new way of communication.”
The company plans to embed this capability into any software product and enable its use in real-time via API.
Language and culture training provider Berlitz has used Hour One to generate thousands of studio-grade videos, Aharon said. Hour One has also partnered with NBCUniversal, DreamWorks and Cameo.
Uses have been of the simpler kind, too: One customer, for instance, used a virtual avatar to explain the ins and outs of a new office coffee maker. “Everybody liked it, everybody listened,” Aharon said. “It was funny, interesting, it was also solving problems. That’s the point of what we are building.”
Since launching in 2019, Hour One has experienced significant growth: It closed a $5 million seed funding round in late 2020 and plans to triple its headcount in both New York and Tel Aviv.
The funding round will be used to support the commercialization of Reals and “enhance and streamline the process of becoming a virtual human on the platform,” Aharon said.
The round was led by private equity and venture capital firm Insight Partners with participation from Galaxy Interactive, Remagine Ventures, Kindred Ventures, Semble Ventures, Cerca Partners, Digital-Horizon and Eynat Guez.
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