The Virtual Beings Summit posits that artificial intelligence is the next great art form. It explores how AI and entertainment will give birth to virtual beings, avatars, agents, assistants, and virtual influencers.

The first Virtual Beings Summit took place in July in San Francisco, and it had a decidedly technology-oriented focus, said Edward Saatchi, co-creator of the conference and CEO of Fable Studios, in an interview with VentureBeat. The Los Angeles version of the summit takes place on November 19 at the United Talent Agency in Beverly Hills, California, and this event is more about entertainment, Saatchi told me. The summit also named the winners of its first Virtual Beings grants, which are listed below.

It’s all about taking virtual characters, infusing them with AI, and bringing them to life. Saatchi believes that artists, engineers, and AI experts working together will make this happen. The first conference, which I attended, showed a lot of examples of this, and the idea stayed with me in interviews such as the one I did about AI and game development with Richard Bartle.

There are many ways this could evolve. But virtual beings might one day be part of our family, our friends, our mentors, and our supporters, according to the summit.


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Putting the ‘art’ in ‘artificial’

Virtual influencers

Above: Virtual influencers are gaining followers.

Image Credit: Hyprsense

The summit’s goal is to unite the separate communities of artists and technologists. This conference will include a session on the ethics of AI, and how to use it correctly.

“The previous summit was more technical, and I hope this one will focus more on actual outcomes that would work for consumers,” Saatchi said. “It’s a bit more real world because this isn’t AR/VR. It’s focused on devices and hardware people use today.”

Travis Cloyd, founder of Worldwide XR, will speak at the summit about his company’s attempt to bring James Dean back to life as a virtual actor.

The speakers include Doug Roble of Digital Domain, Geoff McFetridge (interface designer for Her), Chris Bregler (Google AI), and Emma Coats (handling personality for Google Assistant), discussing topics across digital humans, virtual friends, virtual influencers, conversational AI, machine learning, and more. UTA Ventures head of ventures Sam Wick will be hosting an investor panel with VCs David Min, Jon Goldman, Clinton Foy, and Will Thompson.

Above: Motion capture for the digital character Lucy from the VR experience Wolves in the Walls.

Image Credit: Fable Studios

Dave Schlafman, a five-time Emmy-nominated producer, will also give a talk, as well as director Jessica Brillhart of the Mixed Reality Lab and Michael Koperwas, mixed reality supervisor at ILMxLAB.

Saatchi’s own effort to create a virtual being — the character Lucy from Fable’s VR experience Wolves in the Walls — won an Emmy award. He defines a virtual being as a character that you know isn’t real but with whom you can build a two-way emotional relationship. Mica from Magic Leap is another example. These virtual beings can reach across platforms, including social media, augmented reality headsets, virtual reality, chat devices like Alexa, smartphones, and more.

“We’ve got good Hollywood people around the concept of digital actors,” Saatchi said. “We want to look at how it changes acting, how it changes rock stars, how it changes celebrities and influencers. Hopefully it will inspire Hollywood a lot about all of the different opportunities.”

One company, Hereafter, is introducing virtual immortality, bringing dead relatives back to life so they can talk to you in their own voices through Alexa. Some creators want to bring virtual influencers like Lil Miquela to the movies, concerts, fashion shows, and more.

“We take a look at the risks around deepfakes and how they can say things that a person didn’t say,” Saatchi said.

Winners of the first Virtual Being Developer Grants

The winners of the first Virtual Beings grants — out of nearly 100 applications — include a recreation of Indian national hero Mahatma Gandhi and virtual city guides. “It was impossible to choose just 6, so the entrants this time will be re-entered for the next batch of grants winners to be announced in April,” Saatchi promised.

Coala Guides to explore the real world

The goal of this project was to create virtual beings that help us explore and interact with the world around us. The beings will make it easy for people to see their surroundings with fresh eyes.

Eliza has questions for you

Eliza is a voice assistant specializing in romance; an expert on cohabitation, all-devouring passions, and penchants of all kinds; and a virtuoso of desire and attachment. That is how Eliza introduces herself as she enters your world, which she then disrupts with her many questions.

Eat pancakes with a virtual being

This is an interactive installation that invites visitors to dine with a conversational AI. Over a familiar breakfast in a casual setting, the experience explores how virtual beings can begin to augment human connection, highlighting a near future where they fill gaps in our lives.

Virtual immortality through a legacy bot

Currently, people sometimes save voicemail messages from loved ones who have passed away just so they can again hear their voices. Meanwhile, people use voice platforms like Alexa and Assistant mostly for trivialities like setting timers, dimming lights, and playing music. The HereAfter service unites those activities, bringing back people who have died by making their voices live on. The creators say they are far from being able to engineer AIs that converse as well as people do. But using currently available methodologies for dialogue systems and voice computing, the creators have the ability to offer a memory-sharing service that vastly outperforms what people have access to today.

Preserving the voice of a poet with Parkinson’s

The poet Hal Sirowitz was one of the most popular poets in the United States in the 1990s, a regular on MTV and one of the original performers at the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe. He has been living with Parkinson’s disease for over 22 years, but continues to be productive and creative. Sirowitz and his partner — the writer Minter Krotzer — have become advocates for people and families struggling with Parkinson’s disease. This project incorporates Hal’s poems into an HTML web voice reactive interface. People with Parkinson’s disease who spend 30 minutes a day reciting his poems with the interactive AI tool have seen improvement with their vocalization and speech. They’re turning Hal the poet into a virtual character.

Mahatma Gandhi as a virtual being

This group is working on innovative pedagogies in the education space to bring back historic characters like scientists, freedom fighters, and activists from whom students can learn about history in an interactive way. To start with, the group is working on a digital Mahatma Gandhi to explain his teachings on ahimsa (nonviolence), satyagraha (passive resistance), kindness, critical inquiry, and education.

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