Sometimes reality can seem stranger than fiction. Every once in a while I stumble upon a news headline that looks like it was taken directly from a science fiction novel. In fact, I believe that Cory Doctorow said (though I can’t find the exact quote right now) that the easiest way to write science fiction is to talk about the present. Most people have no idea what is going on on the bleeding edge fringe of scientific and cultural advancement so things pulled out of obscure tech news blogs will be seem new and futuristic to great majority of people. And by the time these things trickle down to the mainstream media they will already have read your book, and assume you came up with it first, lauding you a prophetic visionary. It’s funny, because it is pretty much true.
Let me give you an example: recently a Japanese pop idol shocked her fans when she issued a statement revealing that she is not a real person. It turns out that the newest member of the group AKB 48 who appeared in a commercial and a few TV clips was in fact a CGI generated character. She was basically a composite of the “best” facial features of the other band members. Here is a making of video:
If you watch the above video, you will see this is not some high technology magic. It was all made with off the shelf tools, and existing technology – same stuff that Hollywood has been using for years now. But it still looked convincing enough to fool thousands of fans, who created fansites and blogs devoted to the new mystery band member as soon as she appeared. Granted, this was all a big publicity stunt – but a mighty cool one if you asked me.
Think about the potential implications of this story though. What if they kept going with this? What if this mystery girl would appear in the bands music videos and televised concerts? Hell, what if someone else used this idea to create an “ideal” pop star – one that would never sing off-key, never argue with producers and never have to worry about embarrassing paparazzi pictures. Granted, you would still have to make music for this virtual idol, but that’s actually not that hard.
I’m not sure if I mentioned this idea before, but I sort of came up with an idea on how to corner the pop music market using technology. How would I do that? I would basically track all the songs that hit the top-ten charts over the last decade or so, and perform statistical analysis to see if they have common features. Then I would write software to generate music based on these findings. Ok, so maybe it’s not as easy as it sounds, but at least conceptually it could work. But imagine how much more successful this dastardly plan could be if it had realistic looking, CGI singer attached to it.
Of course it would be hard to keep this sort of thing in secret for a long time. If our CGI singer became popular, sooner or later the truth would be uncovered. And then what? Would people still pay to see someone they knew was not a real person?
Oh yes they would. In fact they already do. Let me introduce you to Hatsune Miku – a virtual, holographic pop sensation performing live for hundreds of fans:
Miku is basically a cartoon – an artificially generated hologram. Her dance moves are scripted, an her signing voice is synthesized using Yamaha’s Vocaloid software. Unlike the mystery girl from AKB 48 she is completely computer generated. There are no real people who lent her facial features, and no real singer giving her a voice. She is a completely fictional character, and you could never mistake her for a real person… And yet, her concerts are selling out, and people are buying her records. And hell, why not.
I mean, we all get attached to fictional characters who do not exist in real life – characters from books, stories, TV shows and movies. And I’m not talking about being a fan of an actor or an actress – I’m talking about being a fan of a character they play. Because chances are that character is much more interesting than the real person that brings him/her into life. So why not be fans of fake singers, or virtual bands.
I wonder how long it will take until this trend catches on and spreads to other media. Is it too far fetched to imagine that we might soon see virtual news anchors and actors? I mean a lot of the new movies out there right now have been almost entirely shot in green screen rooms, and we have already seen fully CGI characters (Jar Jar and Yoda from Star Wars Prequels, Gollum from LOTR, etc…) and heavily CGI augmented human actors (eg young Jeff Bridges from Tron: Legacy). It is not a huge stretch to imagine CGI generated “actors”.
Of course, being me, I can’t help to imagine these artificial personalities gaining sentience down the road at some point. Yes, right now they exist as collaborative effort of trained CGI professionals but their creation will become easier, and require more human input and puppeteering. There repertoire of emotes and gestures will be procedurally generated – and at some point they might become avatars for fledgling artificial intelligences.