New Venture Aims to Create AI-Driven Digital "Copies" of Hollywood Stars

"We believe soon everyone will have their own virtual copy of themselves, powered by AI," said Oben's CEO Nikhil Jain.
Courtesy of Oben
Oben's CEO Nikhil Jain

A Pasadena-based artificial intelligence startup called Oben is reaching out to Hollywood talent agencies with an eye toward creating digital "copies" of actors and celebrities for a variety of uses. For instance, Siri’s voice could be replaced by that of a famous actor or actress. Or a digital version of a popular comedian could greet you on your mobile — or appear in some iteration of virtual, augmented or mixed reality.

Backed by companies including HTC Vive and SoftBank Ventures Korea, Oben has already started working with Korea-based talent management firm S.M. Entertainment to develop these for its roster — the likes of K-pop talent Kangta, BoA, TVXQ!, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation and SHINee. (The companies hope to have them ready for primetime later this year.) And today, the firms are launching a new joint venture, AI Stars Limited, a Hong Kong-based agency that will use Oben’s technology to create more of these AI-driven 3D avatars of celebrities for entertainment experiences. The venture is reaching out to potential clients in countries including China, India and the U.S.

In the U.S., Oben wants to get Hollywood on board. "AI Stars will enable celebrities, through their AI, to create interactive and highly personalized experiences for their fans while growing their reach," said Nikhil Jain, co-founder and CEO of Oben.

According to Jain, the celebrity would maintains control of how any digital copy is used, and it takes a minimal amount of time to get started, with Oben requiring just a picture of the actor and a voice recording. A more precise avatar would start with a 3D scan of the celebrity. “The technology has limitless applications,” Jain told The Hollywood Reporter. “We see it as a time machine. Once we have the assets, you can see the celebrity at a certain age — we can dial it forward or backward.”

But will image-conscious celebrities be willing to fork over their likeness and voice, and perhaps, personality? “The biggest thing is the protection of their brand,” Jain responded. “We are starting with the visual and voice part, and limited AI, until it gets more mature. We are also in full compliance with the Right of Publicity Act. We’re starting with simple uses such as replacing things like Siri or Alexa with a celebrity voice.”

Celebrities are just the start of the company’s bold vision of the future. “We believe soon everyone will have their own virtual copy of themselves, powered by AI,” said Jain. “For phase one, we are going high quality, celebrity friendly. The second phase is to let consumers use it. We believe AI can help a person do what they might not have the time or capability to do. What if my AI is at another office, that looks and talks like me.”

The AI-driven avatars would not be capable of making their own decisions, though. "The technology is evolving but it is not there yet,” Jain admitted.

With hacking a very real worry in Hollywood, he added that Oben is taking security seriously. “We have a team focused specifically on security. The assets are behind multiple firewalls.”

Oben’s ambitious agenda could also be on its way to making a Westworld-like experience technically possible. Jain admitted that at CES in January, his company was already putting an AI-driven voice on a robot prototype.

Oben was founded in 2014. Last  November, it announced that it raised $7.7 million in series A round funding with investors including S.M. Entertainment subsidiary Dream Maker Entertainment; Allen DeBevoise’s venture fund Third Wave Digital; and Gordon Cheng, CEO of Cameron Pace Group China.