Virtual people are the future

It’s Monday; it’s SciTech Bulletin – and there’s a lot to cover. Not only has the Consumer Electronics Show just closed, but we’re also catching up on some of the best holiday stories.

Grand Moff Tarkin surprise

I’ve been sitting on this for a while – because I didn’t want to spoil Rogue One for you. The character Grand Moff Tarkin also appeared in the original Star Wars (A New Hope, released in 1977). Tarkin was seemingly played by the same age-defying actor in both films. However, a quick fact-check revealed that Peter Cushing died over 20 years ago. His magical appearance was achieved by using motion capture – with Holby City’s Guy Henry providing the movement. This allowed Industrial Light & Magic to reanimate Cushing’s likeness.

This is a watershed moment for our relationship with machines, as I certainly wasn’t the only one taken in by the trickery. We have now crossed the “uncanny valley” – a perilous place for computer artists, as their viewers are freaked out by almost-humans. Our finely-honed biological skill for spotting people can now be fooled by technology.

That’s a notable achievement. But from an investment point of view, the real story is far bigger. This kind of technology will now steadily advance to ubiquity. Over time, more and more such characters will be brought to life digitally. This may take place after the death of their originators, or simply for reasons of convenience. After all, why bother acting in a film when you can simply licence your likeness instead? If you’re a superstar, a cheaper actor can easily be found.

This development means that it’s time to reappraise investments based on star quality. Two changes are now likely. Firstly, there’s the obvious ability to monetise inactive stars. This gives new revenue streams – for them or their estates. Secondly, increasing suspicion about simulated celebrities may erode the whole concept of fame. Meanwhile, the business case for special effects just got a whole lot better. (Various sources)

In case you’re wondering… I’m not the Andrew Lockley who won two Oscars for special effects. But I do find it amusing when people think I managed to squeeze Interstellar into gaps in my other work.

Snap buys Cimagine

I don’t normally bother with takeover stories, but the tech behind this one is really cool. Cimagine is an augmented reality (AR) company, based around home shopping. The idea is that you look “through” your phone – seeing an intended purchase in your home. This approach has been taken by a few firms, but Snap obviously sees something special – as the price tag was reportedly over $30m. The tie-up is about more than just acquiring Cimagine’s current tools. Its image-processing expertise will be useful, when it comes to building ever-smarter features into Snapchat. That will help Snap stay ahead of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg, seemingly sore after his acquisition offer was rebuffed, currently appears to be on a mission to clone many of Snapchat’s features. It will be interesting to see how Google’s Tango fits into this landscape – because its 3D stereoscopic modelling is going to be a game-changer for AR. (VentureBeat)

LG’s Video Wall

In our previously-regular column “A day in 2050”, we predicted that walls would be replaced by large TV screens. Since writing that series, I’ve been fascinated by how quickly some of these tech-fantasies have come true. At the Consumer Electronics Show show, LG showed off a TV designed to be recessed into walls – much the same as I imagined. A future is indeed possible where walls will routinely display video. Why look at a wall, when you can look at a beach? (BBC News)

Amazon’s airborne warehouse

Many tech majors struggle to keep creative once they’ve grown, but Amazon keeps upping the game. Its airship-cum-warehouse recently received much media attention. However, it’s worth remembering that it’s a patent, with no reported prototype. This concept is therefore likely to be a long way off.  Nevertheless, it’s an appealing idea to have an Independence Day-style warehouse flying over our heads, with drones shuffling down our orders. The fact that Amazon is giving this seemingly-outlandish future its time and attention shows that it may be more realistic than it first seems. (Every Media Source in the Whole Wide World)

Gig economy fightback

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst just took on CitySprint – and won. By proving that she was an employee, she won the right to sick and holiday pay. There are going to be many other legal clashes on the issue of worker status in the “gig economy”, but it’s now plain that labour rights didn’t end when we all got iPhones. The immediate investment impacts are not catastrophic, but challenges lie ahead for many firms. Uber, for example, has had similar woes with labour law. Do check your portfolio, but don’t panic; I hold shares in the sector, and I’m not troubled. There is still a great economic case for the gig economy, even if workers get a few more rights. (BBC News)

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Andrew Lockley
Exponential Investor

Category: Technology

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