Intellitar avatars a poor substitute for afterlife

You can now consider bequeathing your avatar to loved ones after you've died. But honestly, doing so is just creepy.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read

Of the products I've seen recently, Intellitar's Virtual Eternity is the most likely to make children cry.

It is a service, which recently released its beta, in which you create an AI-based animated avatar from a picture of yourself and the answers to a questionnaire. Why? So you can bequeath this cloud-based avatar to your descendants. They can then ask your avatar questions about your life, which it will answer by animating virtual lips on a picture of your real face, with a generic voice (unless you pay extra to have the service create a custom voice library from speech elements you record into the system).

The idea is to keep the virtual you alive long after the actual you has powered down for good. And no, I am not copying from the TV Guide description of "Caprica."

The problem: it's creepy. Both for me and the co-workers I showed it to, it elicited a visceral negative reaction. To be fair, I did not actually show it to any children, but that's because I can't imagine doing so. Even CEO Don Davidson acknowledges that his company's avatars reside in an "uncanny valley." That's the place on the spectrum of animation that lies outside the clearly drawn and clearly alive--and that freaks people out by being neither.

The head of my Virtual Eternity avatar bobs gently and realistically while it waits for questions to answer. However, it doesn't sound like me, my teeth aren't nearly that straight, and the avatar creation module couldn't handle my facial hair. It kept putting my teeth in the middle of my upper lip. I had to use this old picture of my clean-shaven self to get the product to work.

But, Davidson said, the technology will improve. The creepiness will be fixed.

In the meantime, take my virtual wife. Please.

Perhaps there is something to the idea of creating an avatar for your loved ones to interact with. Putting aside the crude avatar, though, the way that Virtual Eternity goes about it is far too basic. This product asks you to answer a series of questions--and optionally lets your create your own question/answer sets. From that data, it creates a chatbot that can hold a rudimentary conversation about the facts you've given it. I found the chatbot got tripped up far too easily, though.

I asked Davidson if his technology could instead take our already-existing online personalities as we constantly reveal them to Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, blogs, and other online repositories, and extract from them the answers to users' questions. I'm thinking especially questions about relationships and beliefs, which is what I would guess our descendants will want most to know about us. That's not in Virtual Eternity, though. You can't link your avatar to the virtual personality you've already created.

Davidson said you can, though, create a little family social network with your avatar, in order to build a basic genealogical system so your descendants will be able to figure out who's who in your family tree.

I think the Virtual Eternity product is all wrong--wrong technology, wrong market, wrong idea. But there may yet be some business possibilities at Intellitar that use the avatar technology. As educational technology, it has potential. Already, Davidson said, the technology is being used in museums to animate historical figures. And as an add-on to virtual world games, there might be something here too--maybe you could leave your avatar behind in the virtual world while you continue to live a real life in the real world. Davidson said three additional products based on the Intellitar product are planned for release within six months. Hopefully they're more useful and less disturbing than Virtual Eternity.

You can speak with Davidson's own VE Intellitar.

See also: Sitepal, Venuegen.