K-pop fans looking for an ever immersive experience of their favorite stars may soon have something to shout about.
Korean entertainment heavyweight CJ ENM has bought a minority stake in an American metaverse startup that creates super-realistic digital versions of media personalities.
Investing in Hyperreal is part of CJ ENM’s strategy to move deeper into the nascent Web3 space. The Korean firm is especially keen on HyperModel – Hyperreal’s high-fidelity digital human platform.
Hyperreal aims to supercharge the digital human economy of virtual appearances by offering A-list talent and brands the tools to unlock their value at scale.
HyperModel can render an ultra-realistic 3D digital twin of a real-world human. The double’s age, language, and other elements can be customized. It can also be minted as an animated Non-Fungible Token (NFT), which can function as a virtual asset.
The characters appear in various digital settings, from traditional media like film, television, and games to emerging mediums like virtual reality, augmented reality, and immersive digital art. There can even be used to spice up experiential e-commerce and virtual classrooms.
Yet Hypperreal is not alone. Several startups from around the world are staking out positions in the emerging market as venture capital pours in.
London-based Metaphysic, (which created a viral deep fake of an uncannily convincing Tom Cruise) raised $7.5 million in January. The startup’s vision is based on a user-centric approach that empowers individuals to fully own and control their biometric data and digital identity as they forge their virtual double.
Done right, Metaphysic believes digital twins can break down entry barriers to the metaverse.
“Many regular people don’t want to interact in the metaverse via stylized avatars or cartoonified versions of themselves,” founder Tom Graham told Korea IT times “We believe to bring billions of people into the metaverse, hyperreality will be essential to help them…replicate themselves without having to endlessly tinker and model an approximate.”
Others are more focused on delivering what big brands want.
In February, Auckland-based SoulMachines, raised US$70 million from SoftBank Vision, a super fund headed by Japan’s second-richest person, Masayoshi Son. This latest round brings the total investment in SoulMachine to US$135 million.
The startup is reimagining what is possible customer experience through synthetic media. Working with a range of global brands, from Nestle to Twitch and the WHO to P&G, SoulMachines is confident its digital twins can deliver unique customer service experiences at scale. It also claims its product can give corporate clients deeper insights into their customers.
Yet these virtual assistants won’t just be the face of big business.
The childhood fantasy of having a replaceable twin to stand-in for you at school may soon be within reach for office-bound adults with the rise of ‘professional doubles.’
“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,” said Oren Aharon, founder of Hour One.
His startup, split between New York and Tel Aviv, raised $20 million in April. Oren’s team will spend the cash augmenting Reals, a self-service text-to-video creator that features virtual humans. London-based Synthesia, which boasts a similar product, raised $50 million in December last year, bringing its total funding to $66.6 million.
Such platforms could be a boon for solopreneurs and content creators. At the same time, enterprises can deploy them to create a scalable digital workforce. Language learning platform Berlitz, for instance, now leverages Hour One to cut down on production time with virtual instructors so it can churn out thousands of video lessons.
Investor backing could see the ecosystem expand rapidly. Yet despite becoming a bright spot on the venture capital map, there is a darker side to virtual doubles.
The arrival of so many new platforms means making digital versions of people now requires little to no technical know-how. This will inevitably lead to mainstream adoption of the medium just as the iPhone reinvented videography for the masses.
Digital replica technology could be easily exploited for blackmail, revenge pornography, cyberbullying, and other nefarious purposes. In an online media environment already polluted with misinformation, hate speech, and scams, virtual humans may yet become another tool for troublemakers.
Aware of the problem, many startups have issued ethical guidelines on how their technology should be used.
Privacy concerns are paramount. Metaphysic has made securing biometric data for their users a foundational principle. Similarly, Synthesia pledges it “will never re-enact someone without their explicit consent.”
Hour One’s code stipulates that its technology is “restricted to safe content (never illegal, unethical, divisive, religious, political or sexual),” while SoulMachines’ states AI systems should “respect, promote, and protect internationally recognized human rights.”
Yet industry players cannot be expected to navigate these ethically murky uncharted waters alone. Regulators, almost always behind the proverbial eight ball with new disruptive technologies, will need to keep a close eye on this fast-moving space.
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Featured Image Credit: Pixabay.
Liam Gibson is a journalist based in Taiwan who regularly publishes in Al Jazeera, Nikkei Asia Review, Straits Times, and other international outlets. He also runs Policy People, a podcast and online content platform for think tank experts.