Posts Tagged ‘avatar’


With a selfie and some audio, a startup called Oben says, it can make you an avatar that can say—or sing—anything.

by Rachel Metz

I’ve met Nikhil Jain in the flesh, and now, on the laptop screen in front of me, I’m looking at a small animated version of him from the torso up, talking in the same tone and lilting accented English—only this version of Jain is bald (hair is tricky to animate convincingly), and his voice has a robotic sound.

For the past three years, Jain has been working on Oben, the startup he cofounded and leads. It’s building technology that uses a single image and an audio clip to automate the construction of what are sort of like digital souls: avatars that look and sound a lot like anyone, and can be made to speak or sing anything.

Of course it won’t really be you—or Beyoncé, or Michael Jackson, or whomever an Oben avatar depicts—but it could be a decent, potentially fun approximation that’s useful for all kinds of things. Maybe, like Jain, you want a virtual you to read stories to your kids when you can’t be there in person. Perhaps you’re a celebrity who wants to let fans do duets with your avatar on a mobile or virtual-reality app, or the estate of a dead celebrity who wants to continue to keep that person “alive” with avatar-based performances. The opportunities are endless—and, perhaps, endlessly eerie.

Oben, based in Pasadena, California, has raised about $9 million so far. The company is planning to release an app late this year that lets people make their own personal avatar and share video clips of it with friends.

Oben is also working with some as-yet-unnamed bands in Asia to make mobile-based avatars that will be able to sing duets with fans, and last month it announced it will launch a virtual-reality-enabled version of its avatar technology with the massively popular social app WeChat, for the HTC Vive headset.

For now, producing the kind of avatar Jain showed me still takes a lot of time, and it doesn’t even include the body below the waist (Jain says the company is experimenting with animating other body parts, but mainly it’s “focusing on other things”). While the avatar can be made with just one photo and two to 20 minutes of reading from a phoneme-rich script (the more, the better), a good avatar still takes Oben’s deep-learning system about eight hours to create. This includes cleaning up the recorded audio, creating a voice print for the person that reflects qualities such as accent and timbre, and making the 3-D visual model (facial movements are predicted from the selfie and voice print, Jain says). While speaking sounds pretty good, the singing clips I heard sounded very Auto-Tuned.

The avatars in the forthcoming app will be less focused on perfection but much faster to build, he says. Oben is also trying to figure out how to match speech and facial expressions so that the avatars can speak any language in a natural-looking way; for now, they’re limited to English and Chinese.

If digital copies like Oben’s are any good, they will raise questions about what should happen to your digital self over time. If you die, should an existing avatar be retained? Is it disturbing if others use digital breadcrumbs you left behind to, in a sense, re-create your digital self?

Jain isn’t sure what the right answer is, though he agrees that, like other companies that deal with user data, Oben does have to address death. And beyond big questions, there are potentially big business opportunities in that issue. The company’s business model is likely to be, in part, predicated on it: he says Oben has been approached by the estates of numerous celebrities, some of them long dead, some recently deceased.

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/607885/how-to-save-your-digital-soul/

An immersive virtual reality therapy could help people with depression to be less critical and more compassionate towards themselves, reducing depressive symptoms, finds a new study from UCL (University College London) and ICREA-University of Barcelona.

The therapy, previously tested by healthy volunteers, was used by 15 depression patients aged 23-61. Nine reported reduced depressive symptoms a month after the therapy, of whom four experienced a clinically significant drop in depression severity. The study is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open and was funded by the Medical Research Council.

Patients in the study wore a virtual reality headset to see from the perspective of a life-size ‘avatar’ or virtual body. Seeing this virtual body in a mirror moving in the same way as their own body typically produces the illusion that this is their own body. This is called ’embodiment’.

While embodied in an adult avatar, participants were trained to express compassion towards a distressed virtual child. As they talked to the child it appeared to gradually stop crying and respond positively to the compassion. After a few minutes the patients were embodied in the virtual child and saw the adult avatar deliver their own compassionate words and gestures to them. This brief 8-minute scenario was repeated three times at weekly intervals, and patients were followed up a month later.

“People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives,” explains study lead Professor Chris Brewin (UCL Clinical, Educational & Health Psychology). “In this study, by comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion. The aim was to teach patients to be more compassionate towards themselves and less self-critical, and we saw promising results. A month after the study, several patients described how their experience had changed their response to real-life situations in which they would previously have been self-critical.”

The study offers a promising proof-of-concept, but as a small trial without a control group it cannot show whether the intervention is responsible for the clinical improvement in patients.

“We now hope to develop the technique further to conduct a larger controlled trial, so that we can confidently determine any clinical benefit,” says co-author Professor Mel Slater (ICREA-University of Barcelona and UCL Computer Science). “If a substantial benefit is seen, then this therapy could have huge potential. The recent marketing of low-cost home virtual reality systems means that methods such as this could potentially be part of every home and be used on a widespread basis.”

Publication: Embodying self-compassion within virtual reality and its effects on patients with depression. Falconer, CJ et al. British Journal of Psychiatry Open (February, 2016)