IMAGINED PERSONAS: Virtual Realms of Digital Humans

Personality. Character. Image. These are often associated with how the projection of one’s persona is perceived in the society. Our self-concept is shaped by the innermost ideas of who we truly are and (sub)consciously blends with desires of who we aspire to be.  Over our lifetime, our being evolves as our realms expand and most interestingly, adapting to the waves of change in diverse contexts and communities. The personas and personalities we exude and express are further enriched by our interactions with others across imagined worlds—virtual realms we choose and create for a multitude of reasons and motivations.  For almost six decades since the emergence of artificial intelligence, we have seen windows to new worlds openly inviting us to enter and experience unconventional ways of living.  The ways in which we tap and immerse into these new territories allow us to discover new facets of ourselves as we rediscover and redefine our realities.


The interactive multiplayer game AVATAR (heavily influenced by dnd from the Dungeons & Dragons series) was created and published by the University of Illinois and released in 1979.  For such an innovation in the gaming industry, it was ahead of its time in terms of allowing players from all around the world to interact in a gaming environment. It ran on PLATO and was controlled using the system’s tandem keyboard. It opened the portals to players craving for fantastic territories to navigate, enter into, explore, and journey through.  Indeed, it levelled up the DnD board game experience as it enabled players to play, have fun, be entertained—technologically.

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Launched almost two decades ago, Second Life seems immortal.  While so many other multiplayer games are far more visually stimulating and engaging, there is something about this raw and dated game that makes it stick around to date.  Developed by Linden Lab, Second Life, at the onset when it was launched in 2003, immediately appealed to its audience. Apart from giving the players freedom to create their own avatars and design their own virtual environments,  this revolutionary platform enabled users to “play in a different way”—not the usual treasure-hunting and war-laden actions but the more mundane human activities: swimming in a pool, meeting friends in a café, shopping for the latest fashion accessories, to name a few. What’s more fascinating is that you are not necessarily just playing the consumer role in these situations—Second Life pushes you to be the entrepreneur. That café or fashion boutique may be an expression and reflection of your real-life goal to actually run such an enterprise. More excitingly, enthusiasts are not merely role-playing that life goal but they could actually monetize their virtual realm and convert to real cold cash.  Of course, this was aimed at targeting the adult population as they appealed to the working and business-minded generation. 


Meet SARA—your “Socially Aware Robot Assistant”.  At the World Economic Forum event in Tianjin, China almost five years ago, creator Justine Cassell tagged along her virtual assistant SARA to “show people what the future might hold”—especially as she has dedicated her life to a career centered on studying the interaction between human and machine.  The rise of virtual assistants in the contemporary workplace (and even at home) has led to SARA’s siblings—Apple has Siri, Microsoft has Cortana, and Amazon has Alexa. What sets Sara apart from her sibs? Her creator recognizes that while we have been interacting with these AI sisters, much remains to be done in the way their ‘social intelligence’ is wired.  It is one thing to be able to respond to a question or to an instruction (and we see these in a lot of virtual assistants)—initiating the conversation and anticipating the next thought from a human being is another. This is where AI technology born over sixty years ago seems to be leading us into—humachination



This pioneering facial performance capturing tool was developed by Dr. Hao Li–who has worked on exciting projects for Apple and Oculus/Facebook. While teaching at the University of Southern California and directing its Vision and Graphics Lab, he also runs his own AR startup, Pinscreen. More popularly, he is responsible for FACESHIFT: a tool which enables one to more accurately capture one’s facial expression—every tiny motion detail. Why is this important? In an interview, Dr. Li validated that ‘human faces are one of the most complex things to animate’. This is exactly what challenged him and his team to address. Proudly, his Faceshift system is regarded as the ‘first end-to-end facial-animation solution that used a Kinect sensor to produce high-quality animations using state-of-art technologies’.



Shudu rose to fame and popularity just recently—a temporal term which is highly relative. Just three years ago, her modelling career started and shot up rapidly.  Her manager (actually creator) is 30-year old Cameron-James Wilson—a British photographer-artist who has decided to move back to his hometown Weymouth in order to focus on his art.  At first, he discovered, explored, and enjoyed his craft using Blender, a 3D software program and he eventually advanced to using the free sfx program Daz 3D.  This equipped him with the creative skills to mold Shudu from real-life supermodels such as Iman (for her deeply-socketed eyes) and more ecstatically from the special-edition Princess of South Africa Barbie doll—distinctly for the neck rings. 


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