You only live once, right? Not if Somnium has anything to say about it. As companies are increasingly scrambling to get themselves a piece of that sweet Metaverse pie, we’re starting to see new additions spring up to do things that have never been done before. Somnium is starting to make waves in that regard, with its novel approach to life in a virtual world.
Let’s start with the thing everyone in the VR world is talking about: VR real estate. Somnium, as well as a few other companies, are making infinitely large worlds. The hope or goal is that these worlds will be where people can connect, play games, and live.
Unlike previous social spaces, these new worlds can be expanded indefinitely to accommodate more people, and are programmed specifically to be able to be sold or traded using their own in-world currency. Almost like a new country, it will have its own economy and financial structure. Players will be able to buy land, build whatever they can imagine, and sell at their leisure. At this point, the question is why?
What Is Real?
The debate on what “real” means can go on forever. For our purposes today, we’re going to look at why someone might spend real-world money, for a virtual world property. Despite the fact that people have been paying for virtual experiences since the late 70s, in the form of video games of increasing quality, in the last 20 years, it has taken a few turns. Paying for in-game items and adding content isn’t really new. For RPG players it’s practically expected. Right now there are thousands of people that are living virtual lives online. This includes owning property, pets, items, etc. along with the thousands that pay microtransactions for games. This kind of setup is not really a new idea.
The difference here is what you pay for. Imagine creating the house of your dreams. sitting on a couch in your open-plan living room and looking out to an infinite ocean. If you see it and hear it, can’t that be real enough? What about building a massive castle on your own private island and hosting a paintball tournament? As a person who rents a 1 bedroom apartment, I can say it would be nice to have a beautiful getaway I can go to anytime I want, even if it is virtual. You’ll be able to walk the streets, talk to people, go to shops, etc. The goal is that this world will be a bustling ecosystem all its own. However, that’s just the beginning.
One of the “features” of Somnium Space, amongst some really quite ingenious ones, is the option to be “recorded”. This is a proprietary system that will record all aspects of a user. Voice, mannerisms, gestures, phrases, etc. With the goal being an AI system that will create a “virtual avatar”. This means that once a user passes away, friends and loved ones can have a virtual copy that will “live on”. These avatars will be able to hold conversations, interact, and perhaps even play games with other users. Somnium has been quoted as saying that the “goal is that for the first 10 minutes, you wouldn’t be able to tell it isn’t a real person”.
The first image in my head when I read that is the Fortress of Solitude from Superman. For those unfamiliar, Superman’s Fortress of Solitude is a place made to replicate his home planet, Krypton. In that fortress, there is a holographic copy of Superman’s birth father, Jor-El, who would be able to offer advice, experience, and otherwise converse. The loose definition of “live forever” aside, this could be a potentially incredible legacy. To have a virtual copy of yourself to allow a small portion of yourself to live on.
Accept No Substitutes
While I may look at this “feature” as a fancy digital statue that can talk, some of the controversies here are more about the people that will be interacting with it, than the virtual copy itself. Although some may see this as an opportunity to visit lost loved ones and ease the pain a little, others may see it as a hindrance to the grieving process. If you lean too heavily on a substitute like this, it may keep you from moving forward.
This sort of copy built on AI won’t be perfect, but grieving people may not care. As someone who has lost loved ones (even recently), I can say I would love to talk to them one more time. And although it may offer some closure for people, it may be a slippery slope into dependence, perhaps even obsession. It remains to be seen if there will be some kind of counseling recommendation for the grieving. Also, we have yet to see how the psychology community will react to making artificial copies of lost loved ones.
We also have yet to see if there will be any kind of safeguards to prevent this kind of recording and copying from being used on celebrities or other persons without their knowledge or consent. Since this technology is only in the idea stages, for now, we will just have to see how it plays out.