The second Virtual Beings Summit is being held today at the United Talent Agency Theater in Beverly Hills, L.A. The one-day event features demos and presentations by a range of top professionals in the artificial intelligence (ai) sector.

New to the term “virtual beings”? So is much of the film and entertainment world — which is one reason why this summit is happening in the first place. The organizers define a virtual being as “a character that you know isn’t real but with whom you can build a two-way emotional relationship.”

The term covers a wide range of digital entities, from Lil Miquela, the synthetic Instagram influencer (image at top), to the cg recreation of actor James Dean. These beings aren’t exclusive to vr projects: they can exist in films, social media, augmented reality (ar) experiences, or even as a voice service like Amazon’s Alexa. Often, ai is used to enhance their lifelike qualities and make their interactions with humans more sophisticated.

The field is attracting plenty of attention from tech companies, ai experts, entrepreneurs, and investors — Lil Miquela’s success, outlined in this New York Times article, hints at these beings’ commercial potential. The summit’s organizers predict that they will become ever more deeply integrated into our technology and lifestyles.

But, the organizers add, “machine learning and ai alone aren’t enough. We need artists working alongside engineers … We will all need to work together to create truly living characters.”

Hence the significance of holding this summit in Hollywood. The event is hosted by Fable Studio, a production company founded by alumni of Facebook’s now-defunct vr film unit Oculus Story Studio. The co-hosts are United Talent Agency, a major presence in the entertainment business. (The inaugural summit was held in San Francisco last July.)

Edward Saatchi
Fable made its name with the Emmy-winning vr narrative series Wolves in the Walls, but has since pivoted toward virtual beings. Its co-founder Edward Saatchi sees more potential in “cross-platform interactive character[s],” as he explained in a 2018 interview with Endgadget. Saatchi elaborated on the motivations behind the summit to Cartoon Brew:

To create virtual beings, we highly encourage an interdisciplinary approach to creation. I touched on this in my guest article on Entrepreneur earlier this year: the future of virtual beings — think Scarlett Johansson in the film Her or Joi in Blade Runner 2049 — will be a work of art as much as a feat of engineering. Currently, ai is used for enterprise, military, and healthcare, but it has yet reached the mainstream for everyone to enjoy. We really see the need to bring together not just machine learning engineers but immersive storytellers, designers, artists to create a virtual being that you deeply care about. A lot of ai communities are siloed. What happens if we bring them together under one roof to brainstorm, share ideas, and collaborate?

The summit’s line-up of speakers includes:

  • Doug Roble — senior director of software r&d, Digital Domain
  • Geoff McFetridge — artist, designer of interface graphics for Spike Jonze’s feature Her
  • Chris Bregler — senior staff scientist and engineering manager, Google AI
  • Emma Coats — editorial lead in personality for Google Assistant
  • David Schlafman — Emmy-nominated producer and design leader
  • Jessica Brillhart — director, Mixed Reality Lab
  • Michael Koperwas — mixed reality supervisor, ILMxLAB

The first winners of the new Virtual Beings Grant will also be announced at the event today. For more information about the event, head to the Virtual Beings Summit’s website.

Latest News from Cartoon Brew