Future of Virtual Metahuman

2022-06-07 10:17:00 Source:China Today Author:ZHANG LIJUAN
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Intelligence, convenience, refinement, diversification, and civilianization are the future goals of VDH development.


The day before winning gold in the women’s freestyle skiing big air at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games, the energetic 18-year-old athlete, Gu Ailing, was still recording programs in a studio for a Winter Olympic show. At first, the audience might be wondering – shouldn’t Gu be focusing on preparing for her final? But after a closer look, you will find that it’s actually not Gu herself in the studio, but her digital avatar – Meet GU.

Digital avatar, or we can call it a virtual digital human (VDH), how is it created? It’s realized by integrating people’s personal appearance, voice and animation generation, audio and video synthesis display, and the interaction function via technical means.

It is not the first time that the artificial intelligence technology like Meet GU has made a sensation. Before that, the Vanke virtual employee Cui Xiaopan, Tsinghua’s virtual outstanding female student Hua Zhibing, and Tik Tok virtual beauty expert Liu Yexi, among others, have brought this technology to public attention. During the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the weather anchor Feng Xiaoshu, and the AI sign language anchor Lingyu have completely brought the popularity of VDH technology to a new height.

The soaring capital investment which this sector has attracted also shows the deep interest the public has in this technology. Relevant statistics show that the first month or so in 2022 saw nearly 100 financing deals in the field of VDH, involving RMB 411 million.

Virtual digital humans with vivid facial expressions and human-like body language are being shown at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) held in Shanghai, on July 7, 2021.

Riding the Metaverse Wave?

The concept of VDH was first proposed in the 1980s, but only became really popular in 2022. Many people believe that its recent popularity is attributed to the prevalence of the concept of metaverse. But is that true?

“Behind the rising popularity of VDH is the rapid development of virtual human industry,” said Li Shiyan, director of Baidu’s intelligent cloud AI human-computer interaction laboratory, adding that user demand and advancements in technology have become the core driving forces for the boom of the digital human sector. At present, China’s intelligent market size is estaimated at more than RMB 1 trillion. With the support of artificial intelligence, virtual humans can meet the varied needs of customers. In addition, from 2017 to 2021, the government has introduced a slew of policies to support the development of digital-related industries, and the influx of capital has also fueled the boom.

Zuo Pengfei, an associate researcher at the Institute of Quantitative and Technological Economics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes that the rapid development of VDH is riding the wave of the trendy metaverse concept, which has led to the introduction of various VDHs by many enterprises and institutions. However, fundamentally speaking, the development of VDH is inseparable from the rapid development of virtual reality technology, users’ needs for highly anthropomorphic and visual virtual images, and enterprises’ needs to convey corporate values and ideas through VDH.

“We cannot deny the catalyst function metaverse has been to the development of VDH industry. With the growing popularity of the concept of metaverse, the number of companies investing in VDH is soaring and the market is booming,” said Yan Mei, an engineer of the Cloud Computing and Big Data Research Institute under the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology. According to Yan, there are three reasons why VDH can take advantage of the metaverse. First, with the rapid advancement of digital human technology, its usability has greatly improved. Second, the application of digital humans has very broad prospects, being able to meet the needs of consumers for intelligent production of digital content and visual interaction. Third, its application environment is favorable. As video becomes a national-level content carrier, it is a trend to create visual products through digital human technology.

Fantasy or Reality

The idea of a virtual digital human is not an entirely new thing. Over the past few years, driven by technology and demand, various kinds of hyper-realistic VDH have emerged one after another. On the one hand, emerging media forms represented by short videos and livestreaming provides more application scenarios and commercialization paths for the technology; while on the other hand, virtual digital humans are being utilized in fields such as finance, operators, and digital exhibition halls, leading to the emergence of many service-oriented roles such as bank digital employees, virtual idols, and virtual anchors, exhibiting the commercial value of this technology.

Yan indicated that the VDH technology is still in its infancy and far from the comprehensive application expected by the public. From the perspective of the market, even though VDH products have begun entering the market, market demands are showing a trend of rapid growth, and the number of companies entering this industry has also began to increase, the industry has not yet yielded profits for them on the whole. From the point of view of application, as a new type of computer application, VDHs can basically meet the needs of various scenarios, but there are still problems such as insufficient accumulation of data and basic technologies, varied product quality, and poor intelligent technology.

Li Shiyan said that the VDH has now evolved to the 3.0 stage. The first half of this stage is the application of VDH technology on the planar computing platform, mainly mobile phones, computers, and smart devices. The second half of the stage is its application on the space computing platform, mainly VR and AR devices.

During the past five years, benefiting from the breakthrough of deep learning algorithms, the production process of VDHs has been effectively simplified. Nevertheless, Li Xuechao, Tencent Bot Platform vice chairman, still believes that VDH is now moving toward a growth stage of intelligence, convenience, refinement, and diversification. Zuo Pengfei endorsed this idea by saying, “Currently, virtual digital humans are mostly used for display and are unable to achieve real interaction with people…there is still a certain distance from the extensive application of VDHs in a real sense.”

Large-Scale Application Expected

The VDH technology is still at the threshold of early development, but it has a promising future, with great commercialization and large-scale application potential.

According to Yan, intelligence, convenience, refinement, diversification, and civilianization are the future goals of VDH development. With the continuous progress of relevant technologies such as modeling, motion capture, computing capacity, and network communication, the sophistication of VDHs will continue to improve. “Virtual digital human technology will gradually be applied in multiple scenarios and fields. With the lowering of the application threshold and costs, this technology will eventually become accessible and available to everyone,” Yan said.

Zuo believes that VDHs will become an important application portal of metaverse, working as a round-the-clock assistant for each user. Thus, they will meet users’ various needs including communication and interaction, helping them operate in the metaverse world.

Currently, we leverage the Internet via mobile application programs (APPs). “With the development of the metaverse, VDHs will replace the APPs we are relying on and become new tools in metaverse. Therefore, the prospects for the VDH industry are bright as large-scale application will be very likely to become a reality in the future,” Zuo said.

Relevant statistics show that by 2030, the overall market size of VDHs will reach RMB 270 billion (US $41.5 billion) in China. Benefitting from the huge potential of virtual products, identity-based VDHs will take the lion’s share, creating a market value of around RMB 175 billion (US $27 billion). The service-based VDHs are developing relatively steadily, with the total scale estimated at more than RMB 95 billion (US $14.6 billion).

Challenges Ahead

The rise of VDHs reflects the trend of integrating virtual reality with the real world. Since the intelligent level of virtual humans is still wanting, many industry insiders have pointed out that there are still many challenges facing the industrialization of this technology.

“The lack of platforms in upstream and downstream industries largely restricts its industrialization, and also establishes an invisible threshold for investment in this industry. Moreover, the development of this technology is also limited by low automation in production, high production threshold, the immaturity of key technologies, as well as the lack of technical and comprehensively qualified talents,” Li analyzed.

In Li Xuechao’s view, the difficulties hindering the development of VDH technology in the industry are mainly on the technical side. Speech recognition belongs to perceptual intelligence, while the advancement for machines from simply recognizing speech to understanding speech requires cognitive intelligence. Whether a machine possesses a natural language understanding ability also becomes a sign to judge whether it is intelligent enough. Being able to naturally understand language is the difficulty of artificial intelligence. How to represent, acquire, learn knowledge, and combine knowledge with data is also a big challenge. Therefore, the key to the future development of VDHs is to increase their ability to deeply understand scenarios and effectively realize technical upgrading.

So far, the production of digital human often involves concerted efforts of several companies. If service-oriented digital humans have a strong IP attribute, together with a certain popularity, the service quality and customer satisfaction will be greatly promoted. As for the performance-oriented digital human, if it can have its own suitable service attributes, its commercial value will be improved remarkably. Presently, neither of the attributes have been effectively materialized. Additionally, the cost of meeting high-mobility and high-frequency requirements remains still high.

Beyond the technical difficulties, Yan Mei pointed out four other problems restricting the development of VDHs. First, the industry is still in its incubation period, lacking policy and capital support. Second, the talent supply system is imperfect, with an extreme shortage of technical and comprehensively qualified talents. Third, the good and the bad product quality are intermingled due to the lack of unified technical standards and systems in the industry. Fourth, relevant laws, regulations, and ethical norms have yet to be improved, with potential risks in safety ethics.

A virtual-human cartoon character interacts with the audience via the motion capture technology at the booth of the Bank of Communications, at the Shanghai World Expo Exhibition & Convention Center, on July 10, 2021.

A Long Way to Go

As VDH technology is expanding its footprint along the industrial chain, issues such as industry norms have also drawn public attention.

Li said that the industry urgently needs a complete talent supply system, especially a cross-field talent system, in a bid to ensure the healthy operation of the industry. Furthermore, relevant laws and regulations and ethical norms need to be improved urgently because the development of VDH technology will lead to some legal issues and engender ethical risks.

Regarding the existing and potential problems of the VDH industry, Zuo Pengfei put forth the following suggestions: Efforts should be made to guide related enterprises to focus on technology innovation while respecting the law of development for this emerging industry. And VDH technological innovation should be coupled with creation of cultural connotations. Besides taking measures to promote its growth, the country should also put in place scientific and standard supervision and administration, thus accelerating the forming of the industry’s self-regulation capacity. Meanwhile, enterprises and research institutes should be encouraged to quicken the formulation of related industrial standards so as to advance the development of the VDH industry. The legislative branch of the government should carry out forward-looking legislation, taking ethics and safety into consideration while ensuring the innovative vitality of the industry.

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