Digital Afterlife Beckons From Cloud-based Service

People who die in Hollywood movies often find themselves floating around on a cloud as angels. Now a startup in Huntsville, Alabama, will let you go to a different kind of cloud after you die: the computing kind.

The two-year-old company, called Intellitar, lets people create intelligent avatars or "intellitars" of themselves now, so they can spend time with their ancestors forever. The avatars are designed to look and talk like their creators, who stock their virtual selves with information to pass on to future generations through virtual conversations.

"We've become accustomed to archiving many things: pictures, video, documents, recordings ... why not archive yourself?" said Don Davidson, CEO and cofounder of Intellitar.

Conversing with ancestors is an age-old dream. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, auditoriums and private parlors all over North America and Europe hosted "spirit mediums" who claimed to channel the minds and personalities of the dead. After going into a trance, they would start speaking in someone else's voice and answer questions posed by descendants left behind. Though some well-known mediums were exposed as frauds, millions of people followed Spiritualism as a religion at its height.

Intellitar is bringing this quest into the Facebook era, letting people represent themselves in the virtual afterlife. Instead of trances and spells, Virtual Eternity uses a combination of text-to-speech technology, artificial intelligence and animation tools, all running on the Rackspace cloud-computing infrastructure. It's currently in "live beta," but it's set for commercial launch by the end of this year, Davidson said. After that, Intellitar has other ideas for how its technology could be used, which it isn't disclosing yet.

To create an intellitar, a user sets up a free or paid account, uploads a single digital portrait photo, and adds information by answering predesigned questions and submitting text.

To make the avatar speak, Intellitar offers a selection of prepared digital voices. As with other elements of Virtual Eternity, a paid account (starting at US$5.95 per month) offers more options. Free members get four sample voices, while those with paid accounts get a selection of 12, which is also being expanded. These are standard voices created by professional voice artists who speak a long series of words and phrases. The recordings can be broken down and then recombined into whatever the avatar wants to say, Davidson said.

If the idea of your late grandmother speaking to you in the voice of a well-trained stranger is less than heartwarming, Intellitar is also preparing an alternative approach. By year's end, the company plans to offer a tool for about $100 that will let your grandmother "train" the avatar in her own voice.

Along with a voice, the avatar needs a face, which is based on the .jpg image you uploaded but can move, thanks to digital animation. The lips, facial muscles and head move as the avatar talks. The avatar's eyes even blink, though this effect still has a bit of a house-of-horror look. Intellitar tried to find a compromise between a good moving image and available computing resources, and the company is working toward a more realistic experience, Davidson said. A demonstration, featuring Davidson's own intellitar, is available on the company's website.

Once the avatar gets a voice and a face, the real person can start to give it an inner life.

"You step through a 40-question personality test, and that's designed to identify kind of a 'baseline brain,' where we come back and recommend a brain," Davidson said. For example, Intellitar may recommend giving the avatar an extroverted personality. Through another set of questions, which can include 30 or more topics with 50 or more questions in each category, the user fills the avatar's brain with information loved ones may want to know. The questions are designed to draw out information such as where the user was born and lived, what they did for a living, their likes and dislikes, and their memories of other family members.

The user can also add knowledge through written texts and other content. Plug-ins will even allow a user to give the avatar information he or she never had, such as expert advice on fly-fishing, Davidson said.

When someone starts to have a conversation with the avatar, the artificial intelligence engine will piece together answers from the provided data and the avatar will deliver those answers like a speaking person. More traditional keepsakes such as photos, videos and documents can also be uploaded and provided to viewers, with narration by the avatar.

One early user of Virtual Eternity, Nick Lioce, said it was ideal for him and his wife to pass on their cultural heritage to their children.

"The setup and training are simple and straightforward. I guess [the only] negative would be that you could spend a lot of time training your intellitar, meaning you really get into the concept of documenting and archiving your family history," Lioce said in an e-mail interview.

An individual membership to Intellitar costs $5.95 per month or $64.95 per year. A family membership, including four intellitars, unlimited storage, and other features, costs $24.95 per month or $274.95 per year. In the next few months, the company plans to add a "family tree" feature for paid members, which will form a tree of family members' avatars displayed in virtual 3D. Other features coming in the next few months include a speech-to-text tool that will allow people to converse with an avatar, using a headset, rather than typing in their questions.

Virtual Eternity isn't solely about being around for eternity. It can also be used among friends or family members who don't see each other often, Davidson said.

"We envision it as a living family tree, a living scrapbook," Davidson said. "It survives a person that may be in it, but it certainly could be used while all of the members of the family are alive."

Compiling information about family members digitally, and maintaining it in a cloud, has advantages over simply storing old papers, tapes and discs. For one thing, if the past few decades are any guide, there are many new generations of digital media ahead, and it will be hard for most consumers to keep updating their mementos. This is one of Intellitar's selling points, though Davidson was realistic about the future.

"To say that it will be available in its current state 50 years from now? I don't think anybody can answer that," he said.

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