Imagine Storytelling with Virtual Beings

Co-Writer & Imagine Lab Supervisor: Joshua Ramirez

Once a month, Imagine Moody comes together in the Imagine Lab to host the Imagine MeetUp, a conversation designed to engage UT students and faculty with topics around how certain industries are changing thanks to emerging technology. For the month of December, we wanted to close the semester on a lighthearted and captivating topic. It is a topic that is famous for its cameos in Hollywood blockbusters, known for their mistakes, and known by their colloquial names.

Photo by Grant Ritchie on Unsplash

If you haven’t guessed already, we discussed virtual beings, and more specifically, on how they are aiding (and sometimes creating on their own) captivating stories. Not sure what a virtual being is? That is what virtual beings are for! Often used as assistants, they are designed to answer questions or complete requests. As the Virtual Beings Summit defined it, “A VIRTUAL BEING IS A CHARACTER THAT YOU KNOW ISN’T REAL BUT WITH WHOM YOU CAN BUILD A TWO-WAY EMOTIONAL RELATIONSHIP”. Notably, most live in our pockets, with names such as Siri and Alexa, and more recently, they have expanded into our homes and virtual spaces in more ways than you would expect.

Most virtual beings we think of, we can hear, but not see. Developers and creators in this emerging space have sought to change that, and some are borrowing from how humans look and feel. Notably, augmented reality headset makers at Magic Leap have teased at a lifelike virtual being which will be able to respond with gestures that mimic that of reality — and uncanniness. Named “Mica”, this virtual beings is poised to be less of an assistant, and more like an actual person. While this may incite fear in the most traditional of technology enthusiasts, this may solve an epidemic of loneliness that we have experienced this generation, and it also may shift the allure of voice assistants altogether. While Mica is not released to the public, we continued to discuss and analyze the potential uses and affects such a technology may have with society as a whole, and whether the voice assistant we have today should remain what they are — assistants.

But what if instead of directing a voice being to perform, what if the being invited you to interact with them? That is what Fable Studios has accomplished with their Wolves in the Wall VR Experience. Winner of the 2019 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Innovation in Interactive Media, the VR title is much like a cinematic theatre, except the main character will intentionally invite you into certain acts. The character, named Lucy, will respond based on your interactions with her and the space, and the story then is guided by both the user and Lucy. This innovation has prompted other developers to engage with other potential uses of virtual beings in storytelling.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

By stories, we mean Instagram. Influencers no longer need to be real in the physical sense, and developer Brud has found a way of actively promoting brands and relationships using virtual subjects. The most famous of these is Lil Miquela. Although her complexion and body may appear realistic, she is not a real person, yet her 1.8 million followers might disagree. “Real” no longer has to be an actual experience, a real photo. Her influence is “real” in that just by reading the comments, it may be hard to tell how many actually recognize that it is not a real person. While their physical interpretation can be fascinating, virtual beings can also be seen as storytellings in the audible — but who provides the voice? Programs such as IVOW and Hereafter present a concept of recording a loved one’s voice to be used with voice assistants for multiple use cases. While the applications discussed require some polishing, the hope is that virtual beings may actually be the cure to many ailments of loneliness, memory, and even be accessible means of therapy.

So, why virtual beings? They are persistent in that they do not require much training and do not grow old. They are adaptive; the mistakes they do make can always be adjusted or learned. They are efficient, in that they do not require human needs or desires, but can accomplish tasks much faster than we think. And lastly, robots are too expensive. Most tasks do not require a physical assistant, and it would be impractical to imply that every aspect of a being required a physical touch. For this topic, we used demos from Magic Leap’s Mica, IVOW, Hereafter, Wolves in the Wall VR, and Brud’s Lil Miquela.

For now, virtual beings are known for their common tasks, but soon this will change. Need to order food? Just say it out-loud to the speaker on your nightstand, or ask the virtual assistant through your augmented reality glasses, whichever is easier. Need a bedtime story? Ask for a virtual John Legend to curate one for you, or jump into a virtual bedroom and watch the story unfold with your new virtual friend all inside a nice and cozy headset. For now, we will watch closely how these beings will grow, and we will revisit this topic again towards the end of the spring semester to see how they have evolved — and if they can finally understand me when I ask “what time is it?”.

Don’t miss the latest updates on Imagine Moody — Where Entrepreneurship Meets Innovation in The Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin. Imagine MeetUps are every second Wednesday of the month during the fall and spring semesters. Keep up with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and sign-up for our monthly newsletter!

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Erin Reilly is a consultant helping others to understand and strategize about storytelling, engagement, play and learning through emergent technology.