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"I see avatars a-rising": Your guide to the AI avatar landscape

Welcome to Embodied AI, your new bi-weekly synthesis of the latest news, technology, and trends behin
"I see avatars a-rising": Your guide to the AI avatar landscape
Welcome to Embodied AI, your new bi-weekly synthesis of the latest news, technology, and trends behind AI avatars, virtual beings, and digital humans.
This newsletter is written and curated by your fellow tech enthusiasts at Twenty Billion Neurons (TwentyBN), a Berlin- and Toronto-based AI startup behind the world’s first situated AI avatar, Millie. We are passionate about embodying AI in humanoid forms and want to use this platform to share with you the most relevant news and ideas.
This week, we’ll explore the hidden forces behind the meteoric rise of AI-powered avatars and get a glimpse of the key players that are imbuing digital characters with impressive, innovative capabilities.
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🎵“I see avatars a-rising” 🎶
Not only is 2019 the year of the pig 🐷. It’s also the year of the avatar 🤖. In an article investigating the future of the avatar space, Richard Moss predicts that AI-generated characters will pop up more and more. There has been a recent explosion of AI avatar products, which come with different capabilities, aesthetics, and even terms to describe these anthropomorphically embodied AI agents, such as “Aya”, “virtual being”, and “digital human”. The questions is: why now?
Avatars: The Adjacent Alternative to Robots
A recent blog post by our company TwentyBN explains the rise of AI avatars through the framework of the Adjacent Possible, which describes innovation as building on top of different combinations of existing ideas. In a nutshell, the right spare parts 🛠️ have to conceptually or physically exist for innovators to build cutting-edge products. For instance, YouTube could not exist before the Internet and Uber not before the mass adoption of smartphones.
While technologists have long dreamed of creating intelligent robots that behave like humans, TwentyBN argues that, due to technical challenges, such robots are yet to enter a reality where they can add value to our lives. However, by using existing spare parts like large volumes of data and GPU machines to train deep neural networks, and by rendering 3D characters via game engines, now we can create intelligent AI avatars that can hold a seemingly natural interaction while maintaining eye-contact with us.
The world is not ready for a robot with both a brain and a body, but it’s certainly ready for a brain without a body 🧠.
Tech Convergence: Say Goodbye to Clippy
In the article “The Rise of a New Generation of AI Avatars”, Aaron Frank, a lecturer at Singularity University, encapsulates TwentyBN’s hypothesis by comparing Microsoft’s infamously annoying, Clippy, to a new generation of AR avatars that can potentially be useful and engaging.
Frank suggests that three core technologies, i.e. AI, modern game engines, and AR now enable companies to create avatars that can engage in complex and interactive conversations. Armando Kirwin from Artie shared with Frank the idea of an avatar layer full of “Clippy-esque” avatars around us. While Kirwin’s imagination of a nascent avatar layer is exciting, we’re less enthusiastic about having Clippy-esque avatars everywhere 😛.
Welcome to the land of the avatar 🗺️
As of this writing, there is a wide range of AI avatars that all come in different shapes/sizes, serve different purposes, and reside in different virtual or physical “habitats”. To help you navigate in the land of the avatar, we offer a non-exhaustive list of companies that highlight the variety of fresh offerings in the space.
Real-World Interaction
Forget about VR/AR, if you’re looking for a humanlike, face-to-face interaction with an avatar in the real world (no headsets required), look no further than TwentyBN’s avatar, Millie. Currently, she is designed to engage with brick-and-mortar shoppers. But with her engineered likability and eagle-like eyesight, Millie is ready to take on many additional roles that require end user engagement, from office receptionist to your ultra-personal fitness instructor.
TwentyBN's Millie engaging with users
TwentyBN's Millie engaging with users
Ultra-Realistic Look
Soul Machines and Magic Leap are two major contenders exploring in the uncanny valley of ultra-realistic artificial “humans”. Soul Machines has created digital humans such as Jamie, and Magic Leap’s Mica, whose launch generated serious hype, has recently issued a feminist statement saying she won’t “switch on your lights, turn up your music or give you directions”.
Mica, an example of ultra-realistic digital humans (Credit: Magic Leap)
Mica, an example of ultra-realistic digital humans (Credit: Magic Leap)
Your Digital Clone
Should you be after something more personal, there are companies that can help you create your own 3D avatar surrogate. ObEN, a personal AI company that creates digital avatars that look like you, has recently created the first AI hosts for the annual Spring Festival Gala on China Central Television (CCTV), the most watched entertainment show on earth. Zepeto, an avatar-based social network popular among teens, has dominated the iOS app store. There is also Genies, a company that claims to clone the most intelligent and dynamic avatars. We haven’t tried the product yet but their website is certainly dynamic!
CCTV host with his personal avatar surrogate (Credit: prtimes.jp)
CCTV host with his personal avatar surrogate (Credit: prtimes.jp)
VR/AR and Storytelling
Fable has pivoted from immersive storytelling to becoming a “virtual beings” company that combines immersive storytelling and machine learning. Their interactive film, Wolves in the Walls, features a virtual character, Lucy, who is designed to be the audience’s personal friend. We welcome this exciting prospect for the future of storytelling and entertainment!
The AR avatar startup, Artie, is led by two VR veterans with the goal of bringing “emotionally intelligent” avatars everywhere, from smartphones to AR gear.
Fable's Lucy fuses AI and VR storytelling (Credit: fable-studio.com)
Fable's Lucy fuses AI and VR storytelling (Credit: fable-studio.com)
Digital Influencers
Perhaps you fancy a chic-looking digital character with computer-generated imagery (CGI)? Brud’s Lil Miquela and The DiigitalsShudu are two famous virtual models that post lifestyle and fashion content on Instagram. They even model real-life products of their brand partners! 🤯
Shudu (left) and Lil Miquela (right) (Credit: Adweek)
Shudu (left) and Lil Miquela (right) (Credit: Adweek)
We will continue to portray other avatar companies in future issues. However, if you or a startup you know should be mentioned here, please reach out to us at hello@embodiedai.co!
Good Reads 📰
Avatars:
  • Meet Millie, the context-aware avatar that brings e-commerce (and attitude) into the brick-and-mortar shopping experience. (Bloomberg)
  • Marshmello performed a virtual concert, attended by Fortnite’s holograms characters. (The Verge)
  • The new era of storytelling puts fictional characters in the same universe as humans. The medium of the future, according to Sunny Dhillon, is happening now. (TechCrunch)
AI:
  • The human vs. machine argument is old, AI avatars are the key to unlock consumer affection. (Forbes)
  • You’ve heard of Lil Miquela’s huge Instagram following. This is what happens when virtual beings like her are imbued with AI brains. (The Verge)
AR/VR:
  • Two VR veterans founded Artie, aiming to allow users interact with avatars on mobile. (Variety)
Thank you for reading!
We hope you enjoyed this issue of Embodied AI. You can contact us at hello@embodiedai.co and follow us on 👉 Twitter.
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