Digital Jack Nicklaus Joins Growing Celebrity World of Synthetic Media
Professional golfer Jack Nicklaus has returned to the digital golf course as a virtual being built by AI and synthetic media developer Soul Machines. Nicklaus is the latest celebrity to approve of a virtual self as the metaverse and synthetic media use frenetically expands. Notably, the 82-year-old golfer’s digital doppelganger took a few decades off the clock and looks like he did at his professional peak when he was 38.
Soul Machines has been developing virtual humans since 2016, building mainly around branded creations representing companies to interact with people in the real world and online via the metaverse. Virtual Jack Nicklaus combines those elements as it synthesizes a real person for his own venture, Nicklaus Companies.
The ‘Digital Jack’ is one of what Soul Machines calls Digital People, combining synthetic speech and visuals with an AI designed to mimic conversations with the real Jack Nicklaus. The AI can be connected to microphones and cameras so that it can both listen to what people say as well as spot nonverbal communication in body language and emotional undertones in what people say. The virtual human composes a response and uses the voice model of Nicklaus to synthesize a verbal answer to what people say, albeit with a focus mainly on golf.
“I have always valued the ability to connect with golfers through golf course design and my writing,” Nicklaus said. “By teaming up with the innovative team at Soul Machines to create my Digital Twin, I now have the ability to share my passion, stories, and philosophies for the sport with generations to come and am excited to be a part of this new and thrilling frontier.”
Nicklaus follows several non-celebrity projects by Soul Machines, including developing with cookie coach Ruth for Nestle Toll House and Ella, the New Zealand police department virtual officer who interacts with visitors to a police station via a standing kiosk. It’s the celebrities that are drawing the most attention to Soul Machines and its technology, however. Shortly before Nicklaus’ debut, the company showed off a digital version of basketball star Carmelo Anthony. That will be available later this year. Soul Machines has hinted that other actors, sports talent, and more digital celebrities are in the works.
Not that Soul Machines is alone in working to meld celebrities with digital avatars. William Shatner began interacting as a digital being last year in a partnership with conversational video AI developer StoryFile. His synthetic self uses natural language to converse with humans, moving and speaking like the actor and calling on information from long interviews with Shatner. There is also a synthetic voice model to respond in Shatner’s voice to all kinds of questions about his work and life.
Synthetic celebrities can also form a kind of digital costume, even without an attached AI. The performance of a digital Simon Cowell on America’s Got Talent relied on synthetic media producer Metaphysic to lip-sync during a performance by former America’s Got Talent contestant Daniel Emmet as he sang. Metaphysic is the company behind the virtual Tom Cruise videos that synthesized the actor from existing video and audio.
Testing the flexibility of synthetic media and virtual beings is only beginning. As the age change for Digital Jack demonstrates, the virtual versions of people don’t have to adhere to strict reality, and of course, they don’t have to be alive to have a virtual avatar. The estate of Albert Einstein worked with the virtual being developer Uneeq to create an authorized virtual Albert Einstein that people can speak with and hear a synthetic version of his voice in response. Whether for educational or marketing purposes, people are interested in interacting with virtual versions of celebrities. Moreover, the technology of synthetic media allows for an exchange, rather than the traditional one-way messages sent from celebrities to the public.
“Our hope is to enrich the entertainment space with our humanized AI platform. Because Digital People are constantly learning, they present uncapped potential to interact with fans through empathetic and personalized experiences across cultures, languages, and geographic regions 24/7,” Soul Machines CEO Greg Cross said. “As a result, we have observed an increase in brand loyalty and customer engagement when digital avatars enable entertainers to broaden their reach.”