SAN FRANCISCO, 5 NOVEMBER 2010 - 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.
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