It’s fairly straightforward in avatar creation software today to make a realistic and good-looking avatars. Making that for millions of people is the tricky part. Luc Schurgers, the Founder of DNABLOCK, is an expert in creating avatars or what we call digital humans, a virtual representation of yourself. He chats with Warren Whitlock about their product called Replikant and how we got to the point of being able to create a digital human. This episode includes a video demonstration.
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Creating Digital Humans With Luc Schurgers
How Repikant Avatar Creation Can Be Put In Most Any Game, And More
We’ve got a fun episode. I’m thinking of being a digital human who will live forever. I’ll do it that way. I’m not sure that’s all there is to being a digital human so I went to the expert. I’ve got Luc Schurgers who is the Founder of DNABlock, the makers of Replikant avatar creation software. We’re going to talk about his product. Welcome to the show, Luc.
It’s nice to meet you, Warren.
Your product is called REPLIKANT. I want to get to that, but I want to talk a little bit in general here about how we got to the point of being able to create a digital human. Let’s start with your definition of a digital human.
It’s a virtual representation of yourself. We focused on creating digital humans or avatars at scale. That scalable part is very important because it’s fairly straightforward to make a good-looking avatar and realistic ones these days. Making that for millions of people is the tricky part. That’s something that we’ve been working on for a couple of years. They can either be a close copy of yourself, but it can also be something completely different. We’ve started doing this because we believe that the next version of the internet or also called the metaverse will be fully virtual and fully 3D. Virtual characters and digital humans are going to be a big part of this new world.
Creating a life-like avatar now, I stretched to say we can do that, but once we start having a lot of these, now you’ve got to start asking, “Do you want to be able to use one or more than just the game that you’re in, or what business can you conduct? Can we trust that it’s real?” Those identity issues are at the heart of what your product will do.
When we started building a platform, we thought it was very important that even though you might want to have multiple avatars like the way you wear different clothes every day, you might want to wear a different skin. However, that person who powers that should be validated in one way or another. That’s something that we’ve built into our avatar creation product.
The simple TV version of this would be that somebody has assumed your identity to the point that they’re doing bank transfers and showing up to places and saying they are you, change your driver’s license photo inside the system. Those are blatant identity theft. Most identity theft is somebody downloading a bunch of credit card numbers and then seeing what they can get away with. In the future, we’re going to be able to have a digital identity. I assume then you can spin up an identity that is a second version like the fake passport or whatever, but you get to a point of being able to be verified by who you are. What will that allow us to do outside of having fun playing games in a second life?The next version of the internet called metaverse will be fully virtual and fully 3D. Click To Tweet
Playing games is very important because the way we’ve developed our product is that you can actually take your avatar. You design it once, but you can put different props on it, different clothes, outfits or hairstyles. You can take that same avatar into different experiences, whether that’s a game, a VR experience, a virtual holiday, a VR dating show, or even an online TV show or a broadcast show. We’re working on a big prime time TV show for Fox where avatars are being used. Being able to have that cross-platform portability is a big thing going into the future. That’s definitely something that we need to lock to identities.
Inter game is a whole different thing than being able to have an avatar in a game. Not to put down the game part of it and the entertainment, but won’t this somehow be tied to when you do a banking transaction or we’re investing with KYC and attach that to a digital identity? Are those going to be separate functions?
We’re not focusing on that. We’re focusing on the avatar part, but there are many projects out there. In the near future, you can connect these all together. It’s going to take a good few more years until we can generate a live feed that is almost indistinguishable from reality. I’m sure you’ve seen all the deepfakes. We’re doing something similar, but we’re generating the actual source video in 3D. We can up press the quality of that by adding wrinkle maps, blood flow maps, etc. We’re still a good five years away from doing that to a point that we have to worry.
The deepfakes are going to be tried no matter what we do, but I often say when people are talking about robots taking over, that part of AI becomes sentient and has emotions. I don’t think so. We’re so far away of any kind of consciousness of a robot. Robots and digital humans have some things in common, whether or not there’s a physical presence. I can see a time when we use AI to stop the bad guys and the deepfakes. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to do it.
We’ve come this far on the planet. There are many messes, but we solved a whole lot of things. Especially at the rate technology is moving now, there’s no reason to think that it’s not possible that we could have a good outcome. It makes me laugh anytime there’s AI or a robot in entertainment and I start watching and going like, “Humans are going to mistreat the robot and robots are going to turn on them.” How about the scenario where the robots are just there and they don’t care whether or not where we are?
I guess it doesn’t make some good filmmaking.
If you don’t have that conflict, then why did you introduce all the robots? When we get a little bit more serious about what is possible, if the AI is going to write new software and improve itself, which we’re past that point, I don’t think there’s a way we turn it all off and prevent the bad guys from using it. We ought to be growing our capabilities with AI as much as we can. In security, are you using a blockchain to secure the identity so that somebody can’t just spin up a copy of me when I create my digital identity?
The identity part that will be linked to accounts, we still have our centralized servers that are running and store everything. Blockchain is interesting from the point of view that we can have ownership of certain assets if you want to sell your avatar. Let’s say you put a lot of time into a certain game, now you want to sell it with these scores, earnings to it or outfits, blockchain is important for that. What we’re doing is trying to conceal that whole layer completely and make it a blockchain agnostic as well. I focus on the graphic part, but it’s an important part of the tech stack.
If I’m playing games well, I could put it on YouTube and Twitch and get a following and get an income from being one of the great players. If I’m able to sell that identity, that’s interesting because somebody else has all that I built up in the game, but they don’t have my talent. That’s an interesting thing to think about there. That’s going to be important. It’s very unlikely that we get a digital star that’s only code. As the subject of William Gibson’s other book, Neuromancer, the one everybody quotes all the time, and then he wrote another one.
He wasn’t that prolific. I think he was writing very few. I thought it was the next novel. I do not read fiction at all, but in the ‘90s, when this came out, I bought it and read it because it was just such an interesting concept of Idoru, a Japanese type name. A character comes alive on the web. I’m not sure what they were calling it. They were not calling it the internet because it was written for early ‘90s audience. Imagine the web or the new internet or whatever we call it and lived there. A guy who was very good at chasing down things in code, an analyst but a very lonely guy wound up falling in love and marrying her.
When I look at the way things have progressed with virtual girlfriends, especially when we look at what Japan does, they’re ahead of us avatar creation. I’m talking about the social aspects. They do good at technology too but when we get to something that is well-known, we are a long way off from being developed to the point that the AI can take that over. How long until we don’t have to tie it to a human?
The aspect of you saying falling in love with it, we connected a bunch of chatbots to our avatars. I must say, I haven’t quite fallen in love with them just yet, but I have sat here until deep in the night having a conversation with a device. It’s quite entertaining. Some of them are indistinguishable from a real person. It’s quite interesting from that point of view. The other thing as well is they can speak any language and they can understand any language. There are a lot of fun things to do. The next move is how do you make them self-generate. You’re going to have some kind of awareness to it. It’s going to have to browse the internet. It’s going to have to tap into chat rooms or randomly start emailing people. That’s another step, but in a two-way conversation, it’s very close.
I have a regular activity where I report spam in my direct messages on Twitter. I have a lot of followers and I’m very much open about letting people communicate with me. DMs don’t work most of the time. I’ve been running an experiment of trying to clean it up. I found that by reporting the obvious spam things where they’re offering me a chance to buy followers or Ray-Ban sunglasses, I don’t know why. Why people think anyone would want to buy Ray-Ban sunglasses from a direct message on Twitter? The romance offers, I’ve been following a bunch of people in a thread or whatever and I wind up getting some that have a revealing picture. Even a nice, young woman and the DM is asking me to send them an email. I have the same thing with business requests or other things like that.
They’re identifiable because of the size of my account. I would get 5 or 10 of them at the same time and they look exactly alike. They have any variety. If feels like that’s got to be a bot of some sort in there. Even a nice smiling woman, nothing about the sexiness of it, it’s not arousal, it’s seeing that and going like, “I wonder if this could be a real person.” Every once in a while, I’d have to go check out their feed, and then their feed is nothing but automated crap. I’ll go ahead and report them. I don’t want to check them all out and I don’t want to delete everybody so I’m playing that game in my mind, but I didn’t see it like that. If I was a younger, lonely guy, it’s not about falling for something. It’s about falling for the illusion that you have some connection or, “I might as well try this. It’s not going to hurt.”
What I’m saying is it doesn’t take much. I was telling my Echo, that name that you talk to the Amazon device with, “Shut up.” It will respond and sometimes will stop whatever it’s doing and sometimes make a comment about what to do. If my wife is in the room, she’s telling me to be nicer to the device. There’s an illusion that there’s a human being on the other end or anybody who could hurt feelings. You’re saying the same that if I talk that way to my daughter or to a person selling door to door, whoever else we encounter. I know, I’m married for many years. I’ve heard a lot of being told what’s impolite. It’s very easy to fall for that, and that is passing the Turing test but different from having that avatar actually want something.Virtual characters and digital humans are going to be a big part of this new world. Click To Tweet
Who knows? Amazon might be using that all for training data. That might be the root of the problems in the future.
I don’t know if I was saying, “Siri, talk dirty to me,” whether or not it’s going to start changing what it does there, but probably. That must be something. I know Microsoft ran the test of one day turning on the Millennial chat or something like that, or maybe it was for teenagers. At any rate, I had to turn it off after a day because it learned bad language. There’s a lot more of that to come. These identities that you’re creating though, in the future, they’re going to be more secure than something like a storage of credit cards or personal identifying information, or the kind of things that the big corporations get hacked.
We had on Twitter with all the verified account. I thought, “What have I done wrong?” I am testing a tool that I can write a tweet and then hit send and it sends the tweet. There are millions of them. It’s helped half of the people work with Twitter not to go to the site. I spend most of my time on the site. I’m testing this thing. I had it uninstalled and a customer service complaint, and I thought it was horrible because it wouldn’t post. I got warnings and I went to Twitter and I’m getting the same warnings. I did the sensible thing. People think I live and can’t go without tweeting for ten minutes, but no. I turned off the device and went and had dinner. Some hours later, I come back and I find out everybody with a blue checkmark has been shut down for several hours because they were hacking some celebrity accounts.
That still only happened when they had somebody internal. When we get to a distributed version of what you’re doing or blockchain protected, I guess you could have a blockchain all on one rack. Nobody will be able to get into it without a key. That becomes better than passwords and two-factor authentication. It’s the idea that only the person that’s holding the key, whether that’s physical or a phrase or whatever can access that. To me, the big promise on is we’re going to be able to create personalities that are digital actors. I don’t know what SAG will say about that.
You’ll see that these new digital actors will become celebrities of the future. You’re confident speaking on the show, but a lot of people that would love to be video blogging, for example, they might be shy or whatever. If they can communicate through an avatar and make their content like that, that might be very appealing. What they’re doing is growing their own IP. This doesn’t necessarily need to be a version of themselves. This can be the new Mickey Mouse. It’s quite important to have safety measures to protect that. In terms of actual identity, the strength is going to come from a couple of projects working together. There are a lot of projects working in this space. When you can combine a couple of factors, you get the strength of decentralization. That’s where I see a future going.
I use IMDb a lot to see where a great director or actor has done work. To me, there’s something to it. We pay them a fortune because they can act like somebody else. I always know they’re going to be in quality stuff. Whether it’s their agent or them, they pick the right scripts and the right thing. I go to IMDb and I’ll find something and I wasted all this time looking up this movie and it’s an animated feature. I do a lot of things to try to stay young, but watching animation is something that’s left me and don’t go looking for it. Scarlett Johansson was Her and played the part beautifully and we never saw her body.
All the big Hollywood stars have done what I call essentially cartoons. I’m trying to think they’re being paid well for the voice work. They’ve established that credibly, the special voice or whatever. We allow them to have that. If the character is based on how they look, we got to have that. We may even wind up having a white guy play a black avatar, which will be a whole other discussion. What you’re working on is good.
What we’re trying to do is democratize animation content creation. I let people do the celebrity voiceovers for animations. That’s done for marketing. Those productions, they have huge budgets. To be honest to myself, I don’t see the allure of that. The studios are squeezing their animators to work for very low rates. Those guys and girls are delivering amazing work. A celebrity comes in for a couple of days of voiceover and they make more than a whole department that’s been slaving away for sometimes numerous years.
Avatar Creation in Hollywood
To the outside observer, getting rid of the actor seems like it’s got to be something on a lot of studio exec’s mind. I don’t have a dog in this fight at the same time. Are there ten times as many people with the talent of our favorite actors that could be making stuff if we spread the money around a little bit?
This is where we’re trying to come in because animation and digital content creation in the form of 3D have been expensive and time-consuming. With the development of real-time technology and the engine where we built REPLIKANT on, you can do this at scale. You can do this easily and you can do this in real-time. This is not going to completely change the whole animation industry, but I think you’ll get a lot of content creators out there. It takes a long time to learn 3D animation. It’s a process of many years. There are many facets to it that you need to learn. They heavily specialized certain parts of it. If you’re a creator and you’re sitting at home and the way you’re used to with the same ease of creating a YouTube video, you can now make a full animated piece with your own character. That brings up a whole new world of entertainment. I think this is where we’re going to get interesting stories. That’s what you see with the Hollywood productions. It’s always on the safe side. They’ve got a formula that works and they repeat it over and over again. The same with the blockbuster king.
Technology has changed, but it’s essentially what Disney did. He created Mickey Mouse with the high squeaky voice. Maybe rely on avoiding doing it or anything like that. At the same time, I see something that a certain person brings to the department as an actor. It’s like in the impromptu or the facial picks or things like that. While we’re getting better at all of those, there’s no reason why that actor couldn’t stay at home and do that, and then it becomes whatever feeds into the digital human of the future.
With our system, you can do that straight into a webcam or even to your iPhone. You can see where it’s going.
I have a problem where I don’t use what came in a package from my Adobe stuff that I have seen. I’ve turned it on enough to put my face up there and see a cartoon of me created immediately. I’ve got no plans to ever use it but if I’ve got that on my PC, what is available as you are the kind of people that are looking for that. That’s where we get into your world. Why don’t you go ahead and tell us how best to get ahold of you or are you accepting investors? Where are you at that way?
We’ve bootstrapped, so we haven’t raised any money. We’ve secured a couple of big contracts and we’re going to do a round after that. We’re probably skipping to seed phase and go straight to Series A. I’m not the person to talk to that. Our CEO has the whole investing strategy. You’ll be able to see our first work on broadcast TV because we’re in production of a show called The Masked Singer, which is on Fox. That’s one thing that’s coming out. We’ve got a couple of games that are using our avatars. One that is particularly funny is based around the elections. You can either be Biden or Trump and a bunch of followers. I recommend people to check that out. We’ve got a couple of projects going in Fashion Week in New York and Paris that are coming up. We’re doing something there. There are plenty of things that we’re working on the digital human and avatar side.
Your website is DNABlock.com. Check that out. We’ll have a little presentation here but there’s a lot more out there about what’s going on and this is a company to follow. Thanks for stopping by.
Thanks for having me.