Updated: Jun 16, 2022
The metaverse is not only about platforms or virtual environments. It will also be about digital humans that will populate it.
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In an earlier article, I’ve written about the Medical Metaverse, the physical embodiment of what we’ve known as the Internet. In that trend report, I briefly shared my early thoughts on the potential opportunities for health & self-care. In this article, we go back to the digital world, but this time around we’ll focus on the Digital Humans in that world.
Digital humans sound unreal. Obviously, they are unreal, of course. But there is something about Digital humans that makes you say to yourself: this is not really happening, isn’t it? But it is happening. In fact, I expect you to be speaking to a Digital Human in the next six months if you haven’t already. Because Digital humans are real. Let me explain.
In this article, I want to explain how this evolution impacts our health and well-being. I’ll elaborate on some of the future roles they will play in health & self-care. Along the way, I do expect you to be flabbergasted by some examples. That’s ok. But I will make sure it is not because I’ve shared the most eccentric examples, but rather by the impact of some ‘normal’ examples already popular today.
Table of contents:
The Healthusiasm Take on Digital Humans
What are Digital Humans?
Now, I must say that the digital world is growing at such a neck-breaking pace that it is difficult to establish a definition before technological conditions have changed again. That’s why you won’t easily find one single definition on the internet. Digital humans are often still defined as computer-generated moving images of a human being, used mainly in games or in movies as an extra in large crowd scenes.
That’s a very narrow definition. I think we can do better today. For the sake of this newsletter, let me provide you with my definition of Digital humans by sharing the visual representation here below.
Digital Humans are part of a larger group I call Digital Beings. After all, looking around in the virtual world, you quickly realize that many avatars don’t look human. But in this article, I won’t elaborate on these non-human-like digital beings. It’s not that they aren’t of use in health & self-care, of course. They are just not the focus of this article.
It’s all about Digital Humans here. But I will split them up into two categories to make things easy: Digital Doubles and Virtual Humans. The main difference is that Digital Doubles are considered some digital version of a real human being, while Virtual Humans are unique to the virtual world. Intrigued already? Let’s dig into it.
The First Type of Digital Humans: Digital Doubles
As the world becomes increasingly digital and even virtual, people have been exploring and experimenting with different ways to depict themselves. Along the way, I’ve noticed there are now four different methods in which humans can be represented in a digital environment. The objective and the technology used mainly drive the differences. Although each of the four types has mostly complementary use cases, it is not impossible to invent overlapping ones in the future.
1. Parallel Personalities.
This is easily the most popular one. Parallel personalities are, in fact, advanced versions of game avatars. It gained massive traction since the popularity of Fortnite and Roblox, which are free online games that make 5 billion dollars per year from personalizing avatars. Gamers considered these personalized avatars (at least) as essential as their real-life personality. Today, you’ll even find such Parallel Personalities outside the games themselves. Live streamers like MelodyProjekt and CodeMiko are known by their 850.000 Twitch followers as digital humans only. And it's certainly not child's play to set up or maintain: They created their persona using Unreal Engine, a motion capture suit from Xsens, motion capture gloves from Manus VR, and a facial tracking helmet from MOCAP Design. That’s how important Parallel Personalities have become. That’s also how real these have become. What if your health or wellness advisor would not be a real person, but a Parallel Personality? It is interesting to ask ourselves if, why, and how this would add to the experience. The fact is that this form of interaction is now already a reality in the (digital) world of Generation Z. The Metaverse will only add to it.
2. Deep Fakes
On balance between scarily dangerous and funny are Deep Fakes. These are digital doubles of real people that are hard to distinguish from the real ones. Think of the videos you’ve seen of Obama or Tom Cruise saying some bizarre stuff. Confusing, right? Fake news and misinformation are already troubling our minds that deep fakes make you doubt anything you see. And yes, there sure lurks danger in this technology. Think about the recent Deep Fake videos about President Zelensky and President Putin that were used to confuse people on both sides in the Ukrainian war. It was the first use of Deep Face technology for armed causes.
But there are also exceptional opportunities, as the South Korean Politician, Yoon Suk-Yeol, can confirm. He uses his deep fake digital double to be able to talk to multiple people at the same time. It answers questions from the audience. Well, technically speaking, Yoon’s campaign team is answering the questions. But in the end, the audience gets the feeling to interact with the political candidate. In only a couple of weeks, several million people visited the avatar. What can we learn from this example to increase access to healthcare?
We’ve seen 2Pac rise from the dead to bring a live performance at Coachella. Whitney Houston is on a World Tour again. And Kim Kardashian’s deceased father got her a personal message at her 40th birthday party. Holograms bring back people to life, so it seems. Perhaps this provides new forms of mourning, therapy, health inspiration or coaching.
But there is another way to look at the possibilities of this technology: teletransportation becomes a reality. Proto, previous known as Portl, provides just that. The feeling of transporting somebody to another space and time. The box in which the 4K hologram is beamed (potentially in live) looks as if an actual person is in it. Truly mind-blowing. In healthcare, we’ve already seen holograms being used on stages of a medical congress. Holograms might indeed be a great opportunity to broadcast medical education more broadly and with more impact than simply playing a 2D video.
4. Digital twins
However big or complex it is, technology allows us to build a digital replica of the tools, people, processes, and systems that businesses employ. With a digital twin, a hospital can, for example, review operational strategies, capacities, staffing, and care models. Digital twins will also be applied to model one’s human body to improve diagnosis, medical care, treatment, and other health interventions. It will facilitate predictive forecasting and make medical interventions more accurate. iCarbonX is a Chinese tech company with such ambitions. Already today, it builds digital twins that enable users to experiment with lifestyle choices and help defeat the disease. Digital Twins are our health-related Digital Double that will serve us well in our lives. Ever wanted to ask a question about your health to someone? Well, ask yourself.
I already wrote about most of these Digital Doubles in the Trend Report “What’s next for Telehealth”. Because in essence, Digital Doubles are an amplification of the access opportunities that Telehealth offers today. Check out the Telehealth Trend report today. The document also contains nine questions you should ask yourself to be ready for the future of Telehealth.
The Second Type of Digital Humans: Virtual Humans
Digital Doubles are another representation of existing humans in a digital context. On the other hand, Virtual Humans are unique, human-like people that only exist in a virtual context. Here’s my definition of a Virtual Human that explains the concept a bit more in detail.
A computer-generated moving image of a unique, human-like being capable of engaging in conversations with humans whilst seemingly living “life” according to its’ personal human-like preferences, interests and values.
It’s debatable whether Virtual Humans already exist today, as defined above. We’ll get to that in a couple of paragraphs. But what’s certain is that the different parts of that definition are already in our lives. Digital humans that are not a multiplied or parallel version of existing humans and that you can have a conversation with? Yep, that is being covered. Digital humans seemingly live their “life” according to their’ personal human-like preferences, interests, and values? Yep, there are plenty of those as well. Let’s get into it.
1. Virtual Assistants
As business owners or service providers can testify, we are confronted daily with the dichotomy of our customers: they want an immediate answer, and they’d rather have human interaction to get that answer. Sadly enough, there is never a business logic that can provide an argument favoring the investment for this. Enters Conversational AI in the format of a human-like digital being. I reckon that most of you have had personal encounters with such Conversational Bots. For example, Nestlé created a Cookie Coach named Ruth. She answers the most commonly-asked questions about making cookies (yes, you can ask how to make cookies gluten-free). In 2020, the New Zealand police enlisted Ella as their newest officer. Also, Ella is a conversational bot that interacts with citizens daily. What’s important to note here is that both examples are ‘new’ individuals. They have their own personality, character traits, or (so-called) background.
This type of virtual assistant that provides speed with a human-like touch is invaluable in healthcare as well. Plenty of examples already exist today. The NHS used Virtual Assistant Olivia for flu vaccine scheduling, while the WHO employed virtual health worker Florence to provide digital counseling services to those trying to quit tobacco. In the Netherlands, Pharmi helps rheumatism patients with questions about their treatment. Virtual Assistants are at the cup of a breakthrough after the learnings from these experiments.
But still, these Virtual Assistants are not yet what we expect them to be, correct? They may look clunky, uncanny, and not very human at all. (On top of that, most seem to be female. This is the GPS debacle all over again.)
I understand that these early signs make people neglect these Virtual Assistants' (near-future) impact. And one never gets a second chance to make a first impression, correct? Well, this is not the case for digital humans. Technological solutions are already making rapid strides on some of the most challenging aspects of making a Virtual Assistant look genuinely human: the skin and hair, the look in the eyes, the inner mouth, and the conversation in itself. Just to name a few: GPT-3 is a mighty neural network trained to generate realistic human conversations. Disney materialized the creation of photo-realistic eyes and inner mouths through the neural rendering of faces. And Unreal Engine, a 3D creation company, made it incredibly easy to design hyper-realistic human faces within no more than a couple of minutes with their MetaHuman Creator. What Unreal Engine manage to create is so real it is… well… unreal… (You have to watch the video below to believe it). So, perhaps don’t just give up on Virtual Assistants just yet.
2. Virtual Influencers
It must have been about five years ago when I first saw her on Instagram. She looked normal but somehow not entirely. Back then, it was confusing when I found out because she appeared so real. Her life seemed real. But the 19-year-old Lil Miquela was nothing but the first Virtual Influencer, a fictional computer-generated person who has human-like characteristics, features and life events. With over 3 million followers on Instagram, she is the perfect brand ambassador on social media. But it doesn’t stop here: she also features on the covers of fashion magazines, in television advertisements, and on Spotify. Because yes,… she signed a record deal as well, of course. Her collaborations generate an annual revenue of about 12 million euros. Not bad for a Virtual Human. Because that is precisely what she is. Throughout the years, I’ve followed all her travels, her break-ups and friendships (with real human beings), the parties, her jokes, and so forth… Her Instagram is a documentation of the ‘real’ life of a virtual person. A life that spans six years while she remains 19, of course.
Knox Frost is a 21-year-old individual from Atlanta in the US. He is the Virtual Influencer that probably has caused the most turmoil on Instagram for not being real. His story talks about processing the internet’s mixed reactions to his existence and his struggles to fit it. Nevertheless, it made Knox Frost the most popular male Virtual Influencer. So much that he even collaborated with the World Health Organisation to inform his 1 million followers about health guidelines related to Covid. Yes, indeed, the WHO has enlisted a fake human, or say a Virtual Influencer, to help with a very real challenge. Virtual Influencers blur the lines between what is real and what is unreal. And if people are ready to accept it, maybe so should we as health providers, marketeers, or innovators. As soon as you are prepared for it, take a peek at this library of several hundreds of Virtual Influencers currently active.
3. Virtual Individuals
Virtual humans are unique individuals who only exist in a virtual environment. Today, we are familiar with them as Virtual Assistants and Influencers - two separate use cases with different features. But you can safely expect both to be growing to each other feature-wise. It’s not difficult to imagine Virtual Influencers having conversational features. On the other hand, we see the public interest in the lives of Virtual Influencers. It would also make sense to add more individual personality traits and ‘life events’ to Virtual Assistants. With the improved visual representation (see MetaHuman creator), this would make Virtual Individuals very real, wouldn’t it? But it can even be more authentic. Well, it already is…
I’ve explained how both Virtual Assistants and Influencers are unique individuals. But everybody interacts with that same individual. What if all your interactions would transform that Virtual human into a Virtual Individual? What if that Virtual Human would grow with you into a Virtual Individual that is unique to you?
It’s actually not that crazy of an idea. However, it sounded like one when the movie HER came out. The film talks about how the protagonist falls in love with a Virtual Assistant with a sensitive, playful personality that starts to know him. The movie was launched in 2012 but was made a reality a couple of years later by Microsoft: Xiaoice. What began as a side project from its Cortana Chatbot quickly became valued at more than 1 billion dollars. Today, over 660 million people are holding life-like, empathetic conversations with Xiaoice to satisfy their emotional needs that in real-life communication are not met. Xiaoice is also expected to be one of the first Virtual Individuals that can listen and talk simultaneously. Being interrupted while you talk. How human-like can it be?
The Japanese interpretation of HER was made by the local popular messenger app in the form of a smart speaker with a hologram. The Virtual Individual, called Azuma Hikari, wakes you up in the morning, reminds you to take your umbrella along, chats with you throughout the day via your messenger app, asks you to please come home early, and puts the light and heating on by the time you are home. She is a partner in your life that you can marry to. Gatebox, the company behind the Virtual Individual, provides a marital certificate that acknowledges the union "beyond dimensions". In this way, roughly 4.000 men are married to this hologram.
Sure, it sounds more than a little creepy. But there is something about the support it provides to some. That is precisely why the Virtual Individual will become that important in health & self-care. I see three obvious uses cases in which Virtual Individuals are playing a huge role today.
1. Advisor: Virtual Individuals can become your unique human-like health assistant, guiding you through the myriad of complex health procedures and digital tools.
2. Coach: A unique life coach that keeps you motivated and focused. Think of it as a personal self-care guru that provides recommendations like the ones you receive from your sleep, run, meditation, medication, and food app. But all at once, and by a human-like Virtual Individual.
3. Companion: Sometimes all we need is someone to talk to. Sometimes we might want some advice. This Virtual Friend is your individual and unique mental health support. Someone unique who knows you and understands what you are going through. Do people want to talk to Virtual Individuals? Yes. A global study by Oracle indicated that 82% of people believe a robot therapist can support their mental health better than humans.
The first such digital “companion” or mental health support has already proven to be very much wanted. Today, more than 7 million people are using Replika, an AI companion who cares about you. He or She will make you laugh, discusses emotions, debates psychology and provides you with insights about yourself. It’s important to understand that this Virtual Individual is not a ‘finished product’. As with other Artificial Intelligence solutions, it will grow with the number of conversations you have. Your Replika will turn into a Virtual Human that knows you… and who you can call for a chat. Because yes, the Replika team is beta testing this feature as well.
Samsung is another important player in the Virtual Individual landscape. The company presented their Virtual Humans, called NEONs, at the CES Event in 2020. They were thoughtfully introduced as “a new kind of life” and “a believably real being”. Indeed, a NEON looks and behaves like a human and will soon become intelligent enough to be fully autonomous, showing emotions, learning skills, creating memories, and being intelligent on their own. A Virtual Individual, made by one of the most powerful consumer tech companies in the world, sure is something to keep an eye on. Nonetheless because one of its future applications is being a Virtual Healthcare Provider. Yep. Your doctor might one day be a Virtual Individual.
The Healthusiasm Take on Digital Humans
I believe the use cases for Digital Humans in health & self-care are obvious. They provide access, advice, coaching, and companionship. With this article, I hope to have provided you with a ton of examples of how Digital Humans are becoming a reality very fast. The question might be on how to get started with these. What are the early steps you can take right now? Well, there are plenty. Perhaps even too much to sum up right here. But let me just share with you two great references if you want to take some Digital baby Human steps:
Conversational AI: There are plenty of conversational experts within your existing digital service providers. Sit together with one of them, identify a simple use case and explore some experiments together.
Voice: “The future of search is Voice” is an old saying in the meantime. It has already been proven by the broad adoption of smart speakers. But also in health, ‘voice’ is definitely the future of about… well everything, in fact. Check out Voice First Health for more inspiration on how voice will be the Operating System of our lives, and discover new ways of helping your customers.
Avatar videos: Experiment with smart Avatar videos. It’s an easy, low threshold, very scalable method to make training, explanation, or introduction videos in 60+ languages (at once). Experiment with companies like Synthesia to learn from these technologies.
Digital Humans are the combination of all of the above. To prepare yourself for the not-so-distant future of Digital Humans, it might be worthwhile learning from the experiments with Conversation AI, Voice, and Avatar videos.
With this inspiration, I hope to have sparked some Healthusiasm to get started with Digital Humans. Because they may seem unreal, but they are more real than we can imagine.
Reach out to me if you want to explore what Digital Humans could mean for your business.
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Related articles on Digital Humans:
✳️ In November 2021, NVIDIA revealed plans to build the world’s most powerful AI supercomputer dedicated to predicting climate change. Named Earth-2, or E-2, the system would create a digital twin of Earth in the Omniverse.
✳️ The next decade is going to be wild, weird, and virtual: In this Article, Greg Fodor writes about the new liberal movement of Avatarism, or in other words, “the freedom of form”.
✳️ Let’s have a look at 21 different ways medical digital twins will transform healthcare
✳️ The new age of virtual humans: Little by little, we observe the rise of hyper-realistic avatars. Some professionals think the health crisis and the lack of social contact are one reason.