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In the not-too-distant future, many of us may routinely use 3D headsets to interact in the metaverse with virtual iterations of companies, friends, and life-like company assistants. These may include Lily from AT&T, Flo from Progressive, Jake from State Farm, and the Swami from CarShield. We’ll also be interacting with new friends like Nestlé‘s Cookie Coach, Ruth, the World Health Organization’s Digital Health worker Florence, and many others. 

Creating digital characters for virtual reality apps and in ecommerce is a fast-rising new segment of IT. San Francisco-based Soul Machines, a company that is rooted in both the animation and artificial intelligence (AI)  sectors, is jumping at the opportunity to create animated digital avatars to bolster interactions in the metaverse. Customers are much more likely to buy something when a familiar face — digital or human — is involved.

Investors, understandably, are hot on the idea. This week, the 6-year-old company revealed an infusion of series B financing ($70 million) led by new investor SoftBank Vision Fund 2, bringing the company’s total  funding to $135 million to date.

“As you know, as consumers, we spend more and more of our time living in a digital world,” CEO and founder Gregg Cross told VentureBeat. “That means we spend more of our time finding information, buying stuff, and interacting with other people and brands; so the world is more digital. One of the big problems in the digital world is that it’s more transactional than the real world, so it becomes harder and harder for human connections to be formed, and human connections are at the heart of brands. 

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“Very few big companies in the world you know exist because they have the most efficient processor for transactions. Go look up any category: luxury fashion, automotive, baking ingredients, just to name a couple; all of those are about attaching value to a brand. So, our fundamental thesis is in a more digital world, we need to find new ways to create human connections. And that’s what our digital workers do for our customers. And I can do it in the 3D world of the internet today.”

Emotionally responsive avatars for the metaverse

Soul Machines describes itself as “designing intelligent and emotionally responsive avatars that change the way people interact with machines.” Its avatars enable users to get help in transforming modern life for the better by revolutionizing the way artificial intelligence, robots, and machines interact with them. 

The company is focused on creating what it calls “the future of customer experience,” which delivers highly personalized brand experiences at scale while collecting detailed customer insights in a way that has not been possible before, Cross said.

Soul Machines works with global brands and celebrities including NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony, Nestlé Toll House chocolate, Procter & Gamble Twitch, The World Health Organization, the Pan American Health Organization, and a list of others. Avatar creators in the market also include Adobe, ReadyPlayer, AvatarMaker, Union AvatarsIn3D.io, and others.

Life-like interactions in a virtual world

Soul Machines was founded in 2016 by serial entrepreneur Cross and Academy Award winner Mark Sagar. Sagar won Scientific and Engineering Award Oscars in 2010 and 2011 for the development of influential facial motion retargeting solutions that greatly influenced the creation of computer-animated feature films. 

His work led to a method of transforming facial motion capture data into an expression-based, editable character animation system to create more lifelike digital characters. All of that science is included in Soul Machines’ models and templates that clients can use to begin creating their own avatars.

“Soul Machines believes every sector will deploy digital people as a digital workforce to represent themselves and their brands in the metaverse,” Cross said. “The future of customer experience in digital worlds is going to be the key to winning in all the digital worlds where people do business, work, and play.” 

Cross said the company will use its latest investment to continue its rapid growth in the enterprise market, with a specific focus on continuing its deep tech research on its Digital Brain technology and launching the future of digital entertainment for the metaverse with hyperrealistic digital twins of real life celebrities.

Additional participation in this round comes from new investors Cleveland Avenue, Liberty City Ventures, and Solasta Ventures. Existing investors including Temasek, Salesforce Ventures, and Horizons Ventures that also participated in this round.

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