Damn, technology moves fast. Nine months ago in Businessweek I predicted artificial-intelligence simulation would soon power video avatars that mimic real moving, chatting humans. Now a company called Seyyer has done it, with “cognitive video realization” that uses software to modify original videos so human faces can say, well, anything. Think Pixar imagery on steroids, beefed up to video photorealism. Here’s Seyyer’s new Ronald Reagan, back from the dead, chatting about politics. Here’s a list of attractive actors who can star in your next TV commercial, no filming required, thanks to Seyyer’s mouth-morphing software. Seyyer suggests its technology is fast, cheap, and cheerfully promises this about its AI creations:
“They’re Alive! And they are brainy, funny, sassy, sexy, impossibly cute and available for your next commercial, pre roll video clip, or other video project. Our AI Avatar family is growing fast and ready to make your message come ALIVE.”
In the first stage, advertisers might rejoice while actors unions go out of business. It will now be incredibly cheap to get a beautiful person to say anything on film, because you simply have to type a script into a computer and software will push the face and vowels into position. No more expensive video shoots!
But in the second stage, this could truly disrupt society. Why not make virtual videos of your own face? Then tie your chatty image to a dataset such as Apple’s Siri, which can answer any question, and connect it to your social media profile history, so it can draw from your historical tone and wit? Toss in voice recognition software and your wife can have a chat with you after you’re dead, or you could handle business meetings by sending the fake other you off via video call while you play golf. With the right data and video verisimilitude, no one will know the difference. Creepily, the other you might be even more handsome (computer, please whiten my teeth) and more intelligent (add a feed from Wikipedia and I’ll answer any question). Don’t even get me started on the Kama Sutra.
When fake humans are funnier, smarter, and sexier than real humans, what happens to the rest of us? No matter. With the GOP in Tampa, it’s just nice to see Reagan’s back.
To understand why your iPhone and TV don’t talk to each other, and why you don’t want them to, let’s revisit the concept of personal space.
This concept is important because $144 billion is going into play in the next two years as most consumers wake up to the idea they have alternatives to cable. In the U.S., the typical consumer spends about $75 a month on cable subscription fees, which total about $74 billion annually. U.S. advertisers chase these viewers with another $70 billion in TV spots. Cable companies are fading as DVRs, Apple TVs, Google Nexus Qs, Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube all try to replace them. You’d think the holy grail of screen/device/phone/handset/tablet convergence would happen, because the big players want the money and you, poor dear, are sick of having three remote controls on your coffee table.
Every month brings a new attempt at screen convergence. Nintendo just announced its new Wii will include a touchscreen on the hand controller, so you can look down to play as well as look up at the TV. And Current TV, the struggling cable network, will broadcast the GOP convention from storm-washed Tampa, Florida, with half of the TV screen split to show a scrolling Twitter feed.
Convergence is almost here. But your psychology suggests it will never happen.
Deep inside, you want different gadgets to do very different things.
The big barrier is the concept of “personal space,” an idea birthed by anthropologist Edward T. Hall and psychologist Robert Sommer in two separate books in the 1960s. The basic idea is people have different “fields” of space around them, and we have unconscious and differing reactions to what happens in each space. At the closest, about 18 inches away, you have “intimate space” for people you love; in the mid-range, 18 inches to 4 feet away, you have “personal space” for working or speaking to friends; and from 4 feet to 12 feet away, you have a “social space” to gather news from strangers. Everything further out is public, the universe at large, and doesn’t really affect you.
These invisible fields vary by culture, by your mood, by your surrounding environment, and by your social position. The Queen of England might demand a wider personal space than you; when you walk into an elevator or subway, you let the fields collapse, because the environs have changed.
But you need different things in each space. Robert Sommer wrote, for instance, that you might let strangers elbow you on the subway, but you “dehumanize” them in your mind, ignoring them as beings, because psychologically you still need to protect your intimate space field. You just can’t let all inputs act the same way at each distance.
Now, look at the gadgets around you. Modern electronics fit into each of these fields almost exactly. Smartphones are held up to our ears for the whispers of lovers or family in our intimate space; tablets and laptops and PCs sit a few feet away in our tool-oriented, friendly personal space; and big-screen TVs are perched comfortably on the wall about 10 feet away in the social space meant more for learning news from strangers. We want intimacy, personal friendships, and social entertainment, but we want them from different ranges.
Electronics gadgets have evolved to fit each of our three personal fields. Devices will never converge completely, because Twitter is your lover and Netflix just a new friend.
Nike is one of the world’s largest marketing machines, spending more than $800 million in U.S. advertising annually. But Nike must fight the law of large numbers (any company that clears $24 billion in revenue faces a potential growth plateau), so it relies on technology to keep consumers begging for more. In its 2012 annual report, Nike frets “if we fail to introduce technical innovation in our products, consumer demand for our products may decline.” So Nikes are awash in engineering; “Air” is compressed air pockets for cushioning; “Zoom Units” are flatter versions of the Air pockets; “Flywire” embeds cables wrapped in fabric to automatically tighten and loosen the shoes; and the “Nike+” is a famous dongle that connects 5 million runners to iPod interfaces that track and share their running mileage.
The tech play works; in fiscal 2012, footwear sales in North America jumped another 15%.
It’s hard to believe but a few years ago social-media gurus were proclaiming TV is dead. Actually, television has left the box and is morphing into screens everywhere, including this massive interactive demo contraption by LG. Along the way television is having an affair with computer screens and their touchscreen lovechildren, tablets and smart phones, until the delineation of what is television and video and computer projections and interactive touch panels blurs into, well, screens.
You have to wonder where this trend will go, and if eventually it will snap back into some form of sanity before every tabletop and ceiling is converted to glowing panels. Cells phones, after all, went through a phase of miniaturization in the late 1990s and early 2000s until the iPhone suddenly made us stop, and then itch for slightly bigger screens. We may pause before we reach a Total Recall remix of video around every corner.
But I doubt we’ll stop. Homeowners will want a contrast of natural elements and visual effects — leather couches still feel good — but in a few years fully interactive screens will be in every room. Windows will darken into shades upon request. Physical objects will respond to finger swipes (thanks to Disney’s Touche technology). Body tracking sensors will recognize you if you walk into a room, and respond if you wave your fingers in the air.
The first executions, as always, will be social enabling (the hologram of you can be beamed into your mom’s living room for a visit) and entertainment (porn, as always, will lead the tech adoption). But I’m always more intrigued by the sociological implications. Facebook has killed the Christmas card and high school class reunion industries but also made people slightly more lonely, as online chat rooms replace bowling leagues and knitting clubs. The over-color-saturation, high-contrast visuals of social media make flesh and blood look less appealing. Most impactful (don’t screw with me, grammarians, language evolves too), the efficient connection of your personality to others, with distance and time zones no longer being a barrier, means it’s easier to make like-minded friends who may live in Switzerland or Iran or China, rather that work through the awkward conversations with the blockhead living over the hedge next door. Love, friendship, and jobs may expand into vast virtual networks; the automobile gave us 40-mile commutes, but the perfection of visual interactive haptic holographic technology will let you converse with, touch and feel anyone on the other side of the planet.
Play it all the way out and technology could end wars, just as today’s commerce puts pressure on the U.S. not to battle any nation with a McDonald’s in it, as we learn to love humans based on their minds.
The downside is you might connect with a real-looking-and-feeling human who is just faking it. That glorious new job or girlfriend just could be a PC-colored avatar generated by a pimply geek running a boiler-room sweatshop.
Be careful when you fall in love with the beauty of tomorrow’s screens.
Still. Football is going to look so cool.
Farhad Manjoo notes in Slate that Digg.com, the once-great crowdsourced social network, has died and been reborn as a plain-vanilla news portal. The site was once wildly popular, almost bought by Google for $200 million, but declining audiences led its URL to be sold to a new group, Betaworks, this year for only $500k.
Why did the old Digg die? Because all social networks eventually grow to the point where you lose your personal influence, and influence is the core reason you find human networks appealing.
First, understand that human networks follow the rules of gravity. Social physics suggests that any congregation of human beings (and other creatures, like birds on a telephone wire) follow a normal pattern. In the first phase, groups form in clusters centered around an invisible gravitational mass. The birds in this photo are most closely grouped near the center, with a few outliers on either side. People do this too, whether at parties, on the beach, or in social networks. In a 2003 paper at University of Texas, psychologist James Pennebaker noted the people-on-a-beach metaphor is most obvious; compared to the position of the stairs leading down to the sand, humans will congregate around the first person to set up a towel near the bottom of the steps something like this:
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This network effect happens in two dimensions (a line, like a narrow beach) or in three dimensions (such as parties, where people cluster around the bar or kitchen). Pennebaker posited that people act as gravitational attractors, with the “mass” being various attributes such as beauty, wit, leadership or strength. Our conflicting desires to listen to others and broadcast to others make us connect in unerring patterns of clusters. Most creatures form such clusters; flocks of birds, running horses, schools of fish.
Then gravity fails.
There is an important clue as to why social networks, like weekend parties or birds on telephone lines, eventually disband — and this is because we eventually lose our influence. Most people are attracted to social networks because they want to be heard; the vast majority of people I follow on Twitter spend most of their time broadcasting ideas, emotions, humor or links. Trouble is, as groups grow, your influence dwindles. Pennebaker noted that “a person’s impact on individual others will decrease with the size of the audience.” He observed fraternity parties (nice work) where groups of 2 people spoke for 20 minutes, 3 people for 10 minutes, and 8 people only for about 2 minutes. Like a high school drama beauty who goes off to Hollywood and discovers she is now only one of thousands of attractive women, large crowds make us work harder, create the dissonance of competition, and dilute our individual impact. If we lose our personal gravity, we want to move on.
This is the second phase of social networks — when they grow to the point that our voices are drowned out. Social networks typically grow and consolidate, thanks to Metcalfe’s (flawed) model of network utility. Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are well aware of this problem, which is why, for instance, Facebook constantly tweaks its edgerank algorithm to try to make your posts connect with and rebound among your closest circle of friends. (Facebook is trying hard to feel small and intimate, despite having nearly 1 billion users.) Unfortunately, your mass as an influencer always grows smaller in contrast to the greater, growing mass of larger networks. Like a small cluster of people at a party where the conversation gets stale, eventually you will disband to go somewhere else where your charm, wit and intelligence are more recognized.
Digg didn’t die because it had a bad system; we all just discovered there was a newer, fresher party where people dug our personal gravity somewhere else.