ObEN is ready for its close-up, and that close-up could include you.
The Pasadena tech’s firm’s artificial intelligence technology allows users to create their own virtual avatars, and it’s set to launch mid-March. The process is easy. You simply download ObEN’s free app, take a selfie and speak a sentence or two into your smartphone. That information is used to create a digital copy, or what the company calls its Personal AI, that looks and sounds amazingly like … well, you. Over time, it even begins to act like you.
“You can have your own Personal AI start singing and dancing on your smartphone and you can send it to your friends,” said Nikhil R. Jain, ObEN’s co-founder and CEO. “It’s a really fun way to express yourself. So instead of me having to go on YouTube to sing something and then send it to someone — because my voice is horrible — this will show you singing in perfect harmony. It’s all about personalization.”
Housed in the Idealab business incubator at 130 W. Union St. in Pasadena, ObEN, is also creating an offshoot of the technology for celebrities. Celebrity AI will allow well known entertainers to monetize their avatars while also getting closer to their fans.
Beyond that, the company’s technology is moving into the world of retail and health care. Jain explains the retail application this way:
“Let’s say you go the mall, pull into the parking garage and get out of your car,” he said. “You favorite celebrity avatar will ask you what you’re buying today. If you say you’re looking for a leather jacket, they’ll know your dimensions because you already created your Personal AI. And if you say you want to spend $400 to $500, it will find jackets in your price range and show you how you’d look in all of the different options.”
Then the virtual celebrity will tell the users where to go in the mall to find the exact type of jacket they’re looking for. ObEN recently received $10 million in investment funding for that application from K11, which operates several high-end malls across Asia.
On the medical side, ObEN’s app will allow users to be connected to virtual nurses and physicians who can offer basic advice based on the symptoms presented to them. Jain said it will be a big time-saver.
“When it was at the peak of flu season, I was on the phone for close to three hours just to get advice,” he said. “And I knew that if I took my kids to urgent care, the wait would be hours. The premise of this is that AI will do the work instead of you having to talk to a person.”
ObEN will be working with China Merchants Lippo Hospital Management Ltd. to bring AI-powered digital medical avatars to hundreds of hospitals throughout China and Southeast Asia.
ObEN’s total funding to date is nearing $24 million. The company earns its revenue through the partnerships forged with other businesses and through premium upgrades to its app. If users opt to revamp their avatar with new clothes, for example, they pay for that upgrade. Or if they want to have their virtual self sing a new song, that might cost more money, depending on royalties.
While video games have long been at the forefront of virtual reality, the technology is already being used in the fields of gaming, architecture, education and military training, among others. The devices offer high quality displays that provide a wide field of view and the ability to track users’ head movements to create high levels of immersion.
Skip Rizzo, director of medical virtual reality for USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, said the uses for VR are myriad. The institute brings film and game industry artists together with computer and social scientists to study and develop immersive media for military training, health therapies, education and other applications.
“I can put children with attention deficit disorder into virtual situations to see how well they pay attention,” he said. “We can also put service members with post traumatic stress disorder into a simulated kind of context in which they were traumatized before to help them better cope with how they handle that.”
Rizzo said VR is also useful when preparing for job interviews.
“This has been a wide area of application because you can create any number of different characters who are the interviewers,” he said. “One could be soft, another one could be neutral and a third could be someone who is cranky, and they can be any race or gender. This helps applicants better prepare how they construct their responses to interview questions.”