Virtuals: exploring the future of virtual experiences

Japanese Virtual Human Saya by Telyuka
Digital Human Saya by Telyuka

Hello world! We’re excited to launch Virtuals, an organization created to analyze the emergence of virtual experiences and their effect on the virtualization of society.

Virtuals will be taking a closer look at the economic and technological aspects of virtual reality, virtual production and virtual beings, bringing together a community of stakeholders who will share their knowledge and experience, creating new opportunities to collaborate and further revolutionize the entertainment industry all over the world.

1. What is a virtual experience?

Virtual experiences seek to emulate and blend with real life experiences like face to face conversations or traditional film-making techniques through innovative hardware and software. Virtualization is a phenomenon that tends to mix the real and virtual world together, slowly changing the daily life of creators, audiences and consumers who gradually and naturally spend more and more time online, interacting with virtual avatars, AR or VR experiences. A VTuber like Kizuna AI is  a good example of this trend, replicating the experience of interacting with a streamer or youtuber (including chats, donations and gifts) through an animated avatar.

Kizuna AI, Virtual Youtuber by Activ8

Why “Virtuals”? In part because “virtual” as a term holds additional meanings in comparison to the common “digital” adjective: its definition implies a simulation as it stands not only for digital formats but also for elements that are near identical to the original. Derived from the latin “virtus”, the term “virtual” expresses the potentiality, the essence of something which stops just short of actually being what it is associated with. The term “virtual reality”, for example, is a beautiful oxymoron depicting a world which is almost real, which holds the essence of what reality is, without being reality itself.

When we speak today of virtual humans, virtual reality, virtual influencers, or virtual production, we are speaking of things that are near-identical simulations that do not exist in the flesh but are still identical in essence. We are in fact starting to surround ourselves with virtual tools and experiences, turning to voice-controlled virtual assistants to inquire about the weather or interacting with lifelike virtual beings – whether they are real or not is irrelevant, as we become more and more tolerant in regards to the portion of “unrealness” that we accept in our lives.

2. The tech empowering virtualization

Virtuals has identified tree pillars which have led to the growth of virtual experiences:

The spread of Interactivity

Interactivity is becoming a staple of entertainment and UX worldwide, mostly through the massive adoption of video games. The widespread trend of gaming has given birth to generations who are used to being active participants in their day to day habits; for some, complex interactive devices have been a part of their education since early childhood. This trend can sometimes manifest itself through the participation in fictional virtual worlds which are much more malleable than reality could ever be.

The emergence of Artificial Intelligence

Research in AI has achieved impressive feats for the last couple of years, among which are the results obtained through GANs (Generative Adversarial Networks)  in terms of 3D production and animation. Some argue that Artificial Intelligence’s end goal will be to simulate an Artificial Human Intelligence, or in other words, a Virtual Intelligence: a mind that closely follows a human way of thinking without being a human mind at all. And while this milestone remains largely out of reach, a great deal of research is going into NLP (Natural Language Processing) and NLG (Natural Language Generation) to achieve a satisfying degree of conversational capability.

The explosion of CGI

The VFX industry never ceases to impress moviegoers and industry specialists alike: recent highlights in modeling and animation such as the Avengers’ Thanos or young Will Smith in Gemini Man have pushed the boundaries of what technical artists and CGI powerhouses are capable of; and to keep on reaching new heights, 3D artists today can pick from a wide array of new procedural tools which have the power of drastically reducing production times. But the most promising aspect of the overall progress of Computer Graphics lies within its interactive capacity, namely real-time graphics, which lie at the heart of a small 3D revolution.

Side by side comparison of Will Smith and his young Digital Double in Gemini Man
Will Smith de-aged in Gemini Man

3. The virtual ecosystem and its creators

The video games industry has always been at the vanguard of digital innovation, both as a young media for young minds and as a source of many innovations and experiments. Virtual socialization has been at the heart of MMORPGs, one of its main genres, and games like World of Warcraft have played a major role in fleshing out 3D virtual communities. Today, social VR experiences similar to VR Chat are laying the groundwork for the next generation of online social interactions, opening a path that mainstream consumer platforms will soon follow. It is by analyzing these innovations that we will be able to see upcoming revolutions on a larger scale.

Another major sector of entertainment responsible for the rise of virtual experiences is the VFX industry. Its unstoppable push to always improve the quality and realism of Computer Graphics is finally crossing the uncanny valley, as depicted in recent blockbusters which mostly rely on their talent and ability to create new worlds out of thin air. However, the shiny baubles of visual effects are merely one side of the coin, the other being a constant technological evolution, continuously improving pipelines, developing new tools and making new breakthroughs, using the funds of entertainment companies to innovate in fields like particles and hair simulation, facial animation or environment design.

Finally, innovation within the video games, VFX or VR markets would not be what it is today without the involvement of research labs funded by GAFA-like behemoths able to pour billions into long term R&D. The fields of AI, interactivity and CGI have been considerably been boosted for the last decade through the action of Google’s computer vision research, Apple’s investment in the ARKit or efforts by parent entertainment companies such as Disney or Tencent. Young startups entering the market are also an important factor, bringing a cohort of business-oriented people and fast-paced iterations to areas previously driven mostly by personal passion.

Virtuals illustrated: a room in VR Chat, an avatar-centered VR social platform
Screenshot of a VRChat room

4. Virtuals in the future

Our team has a couple of exciting projects in the pipe and we can’t wait to unveil what we have working on; stay tuned and do not hesitate to contact the Virtuals staff for more information. In the meantime, stick around as we will release a couple of deep dives into topics like virtual humans, facial animation solutions or virtual production tech. See you around!

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