technology

MacManus: The digital humans being developed in NZ

Technology columnist Richard MacManus takes a deeper look at the AI-powered 3D avatars or 'digital humans' being developed in New Zealand by the likes of FaceMe and Soul Machines.

One of the biggest digital trends of 2018 has been the rise of virtual assistants. But forget Siri, Alexa and chatbots. Those are old-school technologies now. The new wave of virtual assistants are AI-powered 3D avatars, otherwise known as “digital humans.”

If you’re old enough to remember the 80s, you can think of digital humans as the 21st century equivalent of Max Headroom. Albeit less irreverent (so far).

Digital humans are popping up everywhere in New Zealand, thanks in large part to a pair of world-leading Kiwi startups: FaceMe and Soul Machines.

Some of the biggest corporations in New Zealand now utilise digital humans, typically as customer service solutions. Air New Zealand and ANZ have deployed avatars from Soul Machines, while Vodafone and ASB are among FaceMe’s clients.

Digital humans are built using a combination of 3D video, facial and speech recognition, biometric data and machine learning. The idea is that you have a face-to-face conversation with these apps, just as you would with another person.

But why use a digital human interface at all? In most cases a chatbot – like the honey exporting expert Tai, which I discussed last week – can answer questions sufficiently.

In an interview with the Future Tech podcast in September, FaceMe CEO Danny Tomsett suggested that digital human technology is most useful when replies need to go beyond a set script.

Digital humans are helpful “when it comes to coaching or advisory roles,” Tomsett explained, “or experiences where emotion actually can influence – where persuasion might be needed, or empathy is needed because of a customer service inquiry.”

Digital human technology is also better at responding to people in real time, thanks to the sense-based data it is able to process with its machine learning algorithms. That is, what the digital human can see in your facial expressions and hear in the tone of your voice.

“The problem with a lot of chatbots,” Tomsett continued in the podcast, “is that sometimes the intent [of your question] is met, but we’re not that satisfied with the answer.”

A digital human, on the other hand, can see if you’re disappointed with the answer and try to respond appropriately.

Even the Government is now using digital humans. The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) deployed one called Vai at Auckland Airport earlier this year. Vai stands for “Virtual Assistant Interface” and it was developed using FaceMe’s technology.

In a trial conducted at Auckland Airport from February, Vai was put to work as a “digital biosecurity officer.” In effect, it was a digital kiosk. Newly arrived international passengers would stop by and ask general questions of Vai: where do I go now, what do I need to declare, and so on.

Digital humans in your phone

At a recent digital government showcase, I discovered that the airport kiosk could be just the beginning for Vai. “Her” future form could be a mobile app, so that Vai becomes available anywhere at anytime. Think Siri, but with a digital talking head as the user interface. Or think Max Headroom dressed as a biosecurity officer.

A mobile version of Vai is one of the scenarios currently being explored by MPI, as it looks to expand Vai’s presence. Its next immediate goal though is to use Vai as a liaison across multiple government agencies at our border. Along with MPI, the agencies that control our border include Customs, Immigration New Zealand (part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment), and the Ministry of Transport.

“Vai at the border is a low entry risk to test a service involving multiple agencies,” said Desi Ramoo, MPI’s Manager of Research, Technology & Innovation. “In this instance, all travelers will continue to engage border staff, but they will have the opportunity to access information [from Vai] and ask questions which will help them to comply with regulations.”

MPI is currently in discussions with the other border agencies, to investigate if a digital human is the most suitable central interface to use at the border. They also haven’t yet decided if mobile is the right form factor for this.

A Magic Leap into 'mixed reality'

The Government is naturally being cautious about how quickly it pushes digital human technology. But for those curious how far a commercial company might take digital humans, look no further than one of Silicon Valley’s most hyped startups: Magic Leap.

Magic Leap has been promising a revolutionary “mixed reality” device for a number of years. Mixed reality is basically augmented reality combined with real world objects. In one infamous promo video, Magic Leap showed a digital whale leaping out of a gymnasium floor. But it turned out the video was a fictional scene, not an actual demo of its technology.

After many delays, the company finally unveiled its first headset in June: the Magic Leap One. However the headset failed to live up to all the previous hype, so now it seems Magic Leap has turned its attention to digital humans.

In October, Magic Leap introduced Mica – an “AI Avatar". Similar to the avatars promoted by FaceMe and Soul Machines, Mica is a good digital approximation of a human. In a demo of Mica shown at Magic Leap’s L.E.A.P. conference, her facial expressions in particular seemed very life-like and nuanced.

But Mica is probably not destined to become a customer service rep or a biosecurity officer. Instead, Magic Leap intends to use AI avatars like Mica as props for their mixed reality headset. One blogger who got to meet Mica while wearing a Magic Leap headset was impressed by his interaction with the 3D avatar. “This was a virtual human sitting at a real world table,” he wrote, “and she just got me to change something in the real world based on her direction.”

It remains to be seen whether Magic Leap’s AI avatars can entice people to put on the company’s headset. Meanwhile back in the real world, Kiwi startups FaceMe and Soul Machines have already proven that AI-powered digital humans are useful.

Whether it’s helping you select a new mobile phone at a Vodafone store, or telling you to bin the fresh fruit at Auckland Airport, digital humans are here now and ready to serve.

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