Almost five years ago, Artur Sychov’s father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, from which he eventually died. The news of his father’s illness devastated Sychov. “Suddenly I realized I only had so much time with him,” he tells me. At the time, Sychov’s children were only a few years old, and he found the idea that they would grow up without knowing his grandfather very sad.
Sychov wondered if there was any way his children could have a conversation with their grandfather after his death.
Sychov is the CEO and founder of Somnium Space, one of several versions of the metaverse that have sprung up in recent years. Unlike many of his competitors, he can already experience Somnium Space in 3D with VR glasses.
Sychov’s father’s death inspired him to ‘Live for ever‘ develop. This is a feature that will be available in Somnium Space in the future. The idea is for Live Forever to store data on your movements and conversations and duplicate it to create an avatar that moves, talks and sounds like you, and can continue to do so long after you’re dead. In Sychov’s dream virtual world, people will be able to talk to their deceased loved ones whenever they want.
“When I die, and I have my data saved, people, including my children, can literally walk in and have a conversation with my avatar. That avatar moves like me and has the same voice as me,” she tells me. “You meet a person, you start talking and for the first ten minutes you don’t realize it’s AI. That’s the goal.”
According to Sychov, these types of innovations make the metaverse a space for new human experiences and therefore a worthwhile investment. “People think the metaverse is just about selling NFTs or brands that want to sell things, but that’s not the point,” he says. “It’s much deeper.”
The possibilities of large-scale data collection in virtual reality were an eye-opener for Sychov, who, during our conversation, calls the technology “magic.” “The amount of data we could collect about you is probably 100 to 300 times more than if you were using a cell phone,” he says. Virtual reality technology can collect data on how you move your fingers, mouth, eyes, and your entire body. It can quickly identify you and is “more accurate than a fingerprint,” says Sychov.
October 2020 research, published in Naturesupports that statement. For example, the researchers concluded that VR technology could identify the correct person from a group of 500 people after just 5 minutes, and with 95 percent accuracy, by tracking body movements. “That’s why virtual reality is so powerful,” says Sychov. “You can’t fool him.”
Somnium Space has also invested in Teslasuit, which by the way has nothing to do with Elon Musk, and is also working with them. Teslasuit is currently developing a complete haptic virtual reality suit. The wearer of the suit will be able to receive electrical signals that feel like a human touch. In addition, the suit will also be able to store data about the wearer because it contains a high-quality biometric scanner, which collects data on stress levels and cardio, says Sychov.
Sychov also claims that data on how you speak and sound will be collected, though he doesn’t explain how it will work. In any case, he should lead to the experience with an avatar that looks real. Like when you talk to a chatbot for a few minutes but you think it’s a real person. “The same thing will happen in virtual reality,” he says, “but even more convincingly.”
With all the data collected, Somnium Space can work on creating immortal digital doubles. This looks like a sci-fi setting, as we know from movies like dollhouse, dune Y Iron Man† In the last movie, Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon fought over a USB stick that contained a human representation of Russell Crowe, who actually died years ago, but still wants to mentor his son Cavill.
“We use AI to bring to life an avatar of yourself with your data, and that avatar lives on your own digital turf, or in your NFT world, and people will come and talk to you,” Sychov tells me.
So the first step in this process is to collect and store the data of people who want to participate in ‘Live Forever’ and are willing to pay for it. Somnium Space plans to start doing so this year. It will store data about the movement and sounds users make when they are on their own ‘land’, or as it is called in metaverse parlance, in their own ‘parcels’.
Somnium Space hopes to be able to introduce the first batch of AI versions to its users next year. The avatars will then mimic people’s movements and basic conversation skills.
According to Sychov, the beauty of this idea is that as long as the AI continues to evolve, that avatar will continue to evolve, even though the data was collected years ago. “Suppose you or someone else dies,” Sychov explains. “We’ll be able to replicate it better over time, based on the same amount of data we’ve collected about you, thanks to AI capabilities.”
The idea of a virtual reality company having access to so much data about its users is unsettling to say the least, something Sychov doesn’t shy away from when I ask.
“That’s why Facebook is so scary,” he said the first time we spoke. “It’s scary that Facebook is the main metaverse.”
Unlike Meta, which used to be Facebook, Somnium Space doesn’t make money by selling people’s data to advertisers. “We are decentralized,” says Sychov. “We don’t want to know your name. We don’t care who you are.”
Sychov says it’s creating a more responsible business model and hopes users won’t mind if the company mines unlimited amounts of data for analysis. The ‘Live Forever’ feature will be off by default, and the company says it will only collect data from people who choose and pay for that feature. “If you don’t pay, we’ll never collect any of your data, because we don’t sell your data,” he emphasizes. “You have the control”.
The company hopes to keep the price as low as possible: Somnium Space charged early adapters around €45 a year. Sychov believes that the cost of data storage will always require payment.
Those who have chosen to participate can turn the save feature on and off at will and instruct the company to delete all data if they wish. Sychov notes that the more data Somnium collects, the more accurate the future version of you will be.
Although it is a young company, Somnium Space has already faced death. One of its owners passed away unexpectedly in what Sychov describes as a tragic moment for the company. At the request of the family, Somnium Space transferred ownership of its lots to a friend who built a memorial site in the metaverse.
No matter how well the company thinks it has prepared, perpetuating a digital avatar forever will raise legitimate ethical questions. What if, for example, the children of a deceased Somnium Space user find it painful that their beloved parent somehow lives on in their metaverse?
“We need to work these things out with our legal team,” says Sychov, “and also with our users.”