(Photo credit: Somnium Space)
Almost five years ago, Artur Sychov’s father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, which would ultimately kill him within a few years. The news of his father’s illness devastated Sychov. “It kind of hit me that the time I had with him was limited,” he told me last week. At the time, Sychov’s children were just a few years old, and it pained him to think that they might grow up without a memory of their grandfather.
In those moments, he started to wonder if there was some way in which his children might be able to have a conversation with their grandfather, even after he was gone. Sychov is the CEO and founder of Somnium Space, one of the many versions of the metaverse that have sprouted up in recent years. Unlike many of its competitors, Somnium Space is already compatible with virtual reality headsets, allowing for an immersive 3D experience.The death of Sychov’s father served as the inspiration for an idea that he would come to call “Live Forever” mode, a forthcoming feature in Somnium Space that allows people to have their movements and conversations stored as data, then duplicated as an avatar that moves, talks, and sounds just like you—and can continue to do so long after you have died. In Sychov’s dream, people will be able to talk to their dead loved one whenever they wish.“Literally, if I die—and I have this data collected—people can come or my kids, they can come in, and they can have a conversation with my avatar, with my movements, with my voice,” he told me. “You will meet the person. And you would maybe for the first 10 minutes while talking to that person, you would not know that it's actually AI. That’s the goal.”To Sychov, these are the sort of potential innovations that make the metaverse a new arena of human experience worth investing in. “They think that it's about selling NFTs and brands selling their stuff, but it's not about that,” he told me. “It's much deeper.”
Sychov’s moment of revelation came when he realized the awesome data collection potential of virtual reality, a technology that he called “magical” when we spoke. “The amount of data we potentially could record about you is probably on the magnitude of, I'd say realistically, 100-to-300 times more than when you're on a mobile phone,” he said. Virtual reality technology can collect the way your fingers, mouth, eyes, and entire body move and and quickly identify you “more precisely than fingerprints,” Sychov told me. Available research backs up his claims there. One October 2020 study published in Nature, for example, concluded that after less than five minutes of tracking people’s body motions, virtual reality technology could identify someone with 95 percent accuracy out of a group of 500 people. “That's why VR is so powerful,” he said. “You will not fool it.”Somnium Space has also invested in and partnered with Teslasuit, a company with no relation to Elon Musk that is developing a full-body haptic suit for VR. The suit will not only allow those wearing it to receive electrical signals comparable to human touch, but also provide extra data thanks to the inclusion of a medical-grade biometric scanner that collects cardio and stress levels, according to Sychov.
Sychov also claimed that the data will be able to collect how you speak and sound, though he didn’t provide much detail about how that would work, except to make a passing mention of how he sometimes gets tricked for a few minutes when speaking to online chatbots. “The same will happen in VR” with time, he suggested, but even more convincingly. With all that data stored, Somnium Space will then work to create an immortal mirror image of users with the same visual movements and manner of speech—the stuff of an exhausting amount of science fiction ranging from Dollhouse to Dune to Man of Steel, the plot of which revolved around Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon fighting over a thumb drive containing a sentient representation of Russell Crowe, who, though long dead, sought to mentor his son Cavill.“We can take this data and apply AI to it and recreate you as an avatar on your land parcel or inside your NFT world, and people will be able to come and talk to you,” Sychov told me.The first step is to start the process of recording and storing the data of those who wish to pay for and partake in “Live Forever” mode. Somnium Space plans to get underway on it this year, though it will limit the data collection to the movements and sounds users make when they are on their own plots of land, known as parcels in metaverse parlance. Somnium Space hopes to roll out the first set of AI versions of its users, in which people will be recreated as avatars with their movements and basic conversational abilities, by next year.
But the beauty of the idea, according to Sychov, is that this other version of you can continue to evolve alongside artificial intelligence technology in the coming years, even if all the data was collected years ago. “Let's say you die or someone dies,” Sychov explained to me. “With the same amount of data we collected about you, with the progression of AI, we can recreate you better and better” over time.The prospect of a virtual-reality company having access to that much data about its users is concerning to say the least, something Sychov didn’t shy away from when I asked him about it. “That's why Facebook is so scary,” he said the first time we spoke. “It's scary to have Facebook as the leading metaverse.”Unlike Meta, formerly known as Facebook, Somnium Space doesn’t make money by selling people’s data to advertisers. “We are a decentralized world,” Sychov said. “We don't want to know your name. We don't care about who you are.” Sychov believes he is creating a more responsible business model that he hopes will allow users to feel comfortable forking over limitless amounts of data to the company for analysis. The “Live Forever” feature will be off by default, and the company says it will not collect data on anyone unless they opt to pay for it. The company hopes to make the price as low as possible—Somnium Space charged early adopters around $50 for a year—but Sychov predicted the intensive costs of data storage will always necessitate some payment.
(“If you don't pay, we will never collect a single point of data, because we don’t sell your data,” he emphasized. “You have the control.”)Those who choose to partake will be able to turn the record function on and off as they wish and tell the company to delete all data should they ever choose, though Sychov noted that the more data Somnium collects, the more accurate the other version of you will be in the future.Though it is a young company, Somnium Space has already dealt with death on its platform. One of its landowners died unexpectedly in what Sychov described as a tragic moment for the company. At the family’s request, Somnium Space transferred ownership of his parcels to a friend who built a memorial that still stands within the metaverse. But even with all the ethical preparation and experience the company can muster, there will be inevitable and justifiable ethical questions about allowing a version of a self to continue on in perpetuity. What if, for example, the children of a deceased Somnium Space user found it painful to know he was continuing on in some form in their metaverse? “These things, we'll have to figure out with our legal team,” Sychov said, “and also with our users.”