(Photo credit: Somnium Space)
Nearly five years ago, Arthur Sischoff’s father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, which would eventually kill him within a few years. The news of his father’s illness devastated Sychov. “It kind of shocked me that my time with him was so limited,” he told me last week. At the time, Sischoff’s children were only a few years old, and it pained him to think that they might grow up without remembering their grandfather.
In those moments, he began to wonder if there was a way his children could have a conversation with their grandfather, even after he was gone.
Syschoff is the CEO and founder of Somnium Space, one of several versions of the metaverse that have emerged in recent years. Unlike many of its competitors, Somnium Space is already compatible with VR headsets, allowing for an immersive 3D experience.
Sischoff’s father’s death inspired the idea that he’d come to call it Live Forever, an upcoming feature in Somnium Space that lets people store their movements and conversations as data, then copy them as an avatar that moves, talks, and looks just like you — and can keep doing that for a long time. after your death. In Sykov’s dream, people will be able to talk to their deceased loved ones whenever they want.
“Literally, if I die — and I collect this data — people can come in or my kids, and they can come in, and they can have a conversation with my avatar, with my moves, with my voice,” he told me. “You will meet the person. And maybe in the first 10 minutes while talking to this person, you won’t know it’s actually an AI. That’s the point.”
For Sychov, these are the kind of potential innovations that make the metaverse a new arena of human experience worth investing in. “They think it’s about selling NFTs and brands selling their stuff, but it’s not about that,” he tells me. “It’s much deeper.”
Sischoff’s moment of revelation came when he realized the massive data-gathering potential of virtual reality, a technology he called “magical” when we spoke. “The amount of data we can record about you is probably as large as, I would realistically say, 100 to 300 times more than if you were using a mobile phone,” he said. Virtual reality technology can combine the way your fingers, mouth, eyes, and entire body move and quickly recognize you “more accurate than fingerprints,” Seechov told me.
Available research supports his claims there. One study was published in October 2020 in temper natureFor example, he concluded that after less than five minutes of tracking people’s body movements, virtual reality technology could identify a person with 95 percent accuracy out of a group of 500 people. “This is why virtual reality is so powerful,” he said. “You won’t deceive her.”
Somnium Space has also invested in and partnered with Teslasuit, a company unrelated to Elon Musk that is developing a full-body haptic suit for virtual reality. The suit will not only allow the wearer to receive electrical signals comparable to human touch, but will also provide additional data thanks to the inclusion of a medical biometric scanner that collects heart and pressure levels, according to Sychov.
Syschoff also claimed that the data would be able to collect how you speak and your voice, though he didn’t give many details about how this works, except for a passing mention of how he sometimes tricked him for a few minutes when talking to online chatbots. He suggested that “the same thing will happen in virtual reality” over time, but more convincingly.
With all this data stored, Somnium Space will then create a timeless mirror image for users with the same visual movements and manner of speaking – things from a grueling amount of science fiction ranging from dummy to Dune to man of steelthe plot revolves around Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon fighting over a thumb drive containing a conscious representation of Russell Crowe, who, despite his long-dead, sought to mentor his son Cavill.
“We can take this data, apply AI to it, and re-create you as an avatar on your plot of land or within your NFT world, and people will be able to come and talk to you,” Sischoff told me.
The first step is to start the process of registering and storing the data of those who wish to pay and participate in the “Live Forever” mode. Somnium Space plans to start that this year, though it will limit data collection for the movements and sounds users make when they’re on their own plots, known as parcels in metaverse parlance.
Somnium Space hopes to roll out the first batch of AI versions to its users, where people will be recreated as avatars with their basic conversational movements and abilities, by next year.
But the beauty of the idea, according to Sychov, is that this other version of you can continue to evolve alongside AI technology in the coming years, even if all the data was collected years ago. “Suppose you die or someone dies,” Sischoff explained to me. “With the same amount of data we collect about you, as AI advances, we can recreate you better and better” over time.
To say the least about the possibility of a VR company having access to so much data about its users is something Seshauf was not shy about when I asked him about it.
“This is why Facebook is so scary,” he said the first time we spoke. “It’s scary that Facebook is the pioneer of the metaverse.”
Unlike Meta, formerly known as Facebook, Somnium Space does not make money by selling people’s data to advertisers. “We are a decentralized world,” Syschoff said. “We don’t want to know your name. We don’t care who you are.”
Sychov believes he is creating a more responsible business model that he hopes will allow users to feel comfortable sending unlimited amounts of data to the company for analysis. The Live Forever feature will be turned off by default, and the company says it won’t collect data on anyone unless they choose to pay for it. The company hopes to keep the price as low as possible — Somnium Space charges early users about $50 for a year — but Seechoff predicts that the extensive costs of data storage will always entail some payment.
(“If you don’t pay, we will never collect a single point of data, because we don’t sell your data,” he emphasized. “You have control.”)
Those who choose to participate will be able to turn the logging function on and off as they like and tell the company to delete all data if they choose, although Syschoff noted that the more data Somnium collects, the more accurate the other version of you will be. will be in the future.
Although it is a young company, Somnium Space has already dealt with death on its platform. One of its landowners died unexpectedly in what Syschof describes as a tragic moment for the company. At the family’s request, Somnium Space transferred ownership of its parcel to a friend who built a monument that still stands within the metaverse.
But even with all the ethical preparation and experience a company can muster, there will be inevitable and justifiable ethical questions about allowing a version of the self to persist forever. What if, for example, the children of a deceased Somnium Space user found it painful to know that he was somehow continuing to work in their metaverse?
“These things, we will have to resolve with our legal team, as well as with our users,” Syschoff said.