Artificial people are being developed and launched now by studios like Fable, AI Foundation, and Genvid. Enhanced by AI, able to create two-way relationships over time, these virtual people are at the heart of the conversations around the Metaverse. They’re leading to questions about how they’ll influence the next generation of the VR world, and the ways they’ll go far beyond games to enhance creativity, create connections between people, host events, engender community, and more.

On January 27, Edward Saatchi, CEO of Fable Studio and creator of the Virtual Beings Summit, will tackle some of those issues in the GamesBeat and Oculus VR event, “The Metaverse — The Future of VR and Virtual Beings.”

The ultimate goal in developing virtual people, Saatchi says, is reaching the sophistication and self-awareness of virtual beings in movies like Her or Blade Runner 2049. “It’s going to take a lot of different disciplines,” he says, “seeing that there’s a future where we all live with virtual people as well as real people in our lives.”

“The best kinds of people building virtual people would be a mix of AI, social, storytellers, and game designers,” he explains. ”These characters would need to be social, just like us. They’d need to be AI-powered. They’d need to have backstories and memories. They’d need to be interactive. Trying to pull together a team to do that seems like an exciting challenge.”

These artificial people are a leap beyond the NPCs that gamers are familiar with now, even as games grow increasingly state of the art. There are very few, if any, game studios that have yet embraced machine learning, natural language processing, and natural language generation, Saatchi notes. In fact, in games like Red Dead Redemption, NPCs are comprised of thousands of lines of dialogue written by interns grinding away. And these NPCs exist only inside the game.

But now there are virtual people like Miquela Sousa, or Lil Miquela, the 19-year-old Instagram influencer with over a million followers, one of the most fascinating examples of a virtual person that exists outside of a game. She was developed by Brud, an L.A.-based startup that specializes in artificial intelligence and robotics, and she clearly inspired the developers of Seraphine, from League of Legends, who also has an Instagram account.

There’s also the digital Deepak Chopra created by AI Foundation, who you can talk to and learn meditation from, while Epic is pushing the boundaries of animation, to create photorealistic animated characters. Genvid Technologies is working to cross the line between players and viewers with their 24/7 Hunger Games TV show, which features computer-generated game characters that viewers can interact with and vote on their futures, via Facebook Live.

However, the characters that Fable is building don’t exist on an app, aren’t trapped in a game or a movie, and aren’t famous Instagram influencers. They live on all the social platforms that you use, including games, video chats, Instagram, and so on, and they remember you across platforms. You can interact personally with them as you’d interact with any of your friends, and you develop complex relationships with them over time as you text and talk and play games together, and they live their own virtual lives.

“There are about 86 million Gen Z people today, and I feel that in five years, most or all of them will have a virtual being as a close friend,” Saatchi says. “They’ll share gossip, secrets, have conversations every day.”

It’s the first step toward the metaverse, the ultimate social network. When everyone participating is represented by avatars, the playing field is leveled, he says, whether that’s between humans, or between humans and virtual people. Virtual people will look exactly like us, and synthetic speech will enable everyone to communicate.

“Some of your friends in the Metaverse will be real people, and some will be what we would have called, a few years ago, NPCs,” he says. “But we’re all avatars, some of us powered by AI and some of us by blood and guts. The Metaverse will be filled with these characters.”

If you’re intent on building an amazing interactive character, they should be passively consumable, he adds, like the Instagram posts and the videos they create, and they should be interactable, as through phone calls or video chat, the way live humans are — just as you can watch your friend’s Instagram videos or read an article about them, but you can also talk to them.

In gaming, Saatchi predicts massively open worlds that are as rich as a real city with 8 million people, with infinite stories, procedurally generated. Game developers will become even more ambitious, developing characters that aren’t trapped in their games, but living in an infinite game that transcends any particular platform or console.

“A virtual being should be able to play with you in Roblox, in Fortnite, be on Instagram and TikTok, text with you and video chat and call and all the rest,” he says. “The characters transcend the game.”

Join the GamesBeat community in our third exclusive Oculus Venue event, The Metaverse — The Future of VR and Virtual Beings, January 27, at 11 a.m. PT.

For those with Oculus headsets, register here to join in VR

For all other industry execs, join the conversation by registering here!

This event is hosted as part of GamesBeat’s January 26-28 event “Driving Game Growth & Into the Metaverse.” Learn more or register for the full event here.