Imagine listening to brand new songs performed by popular 1970s Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng, who passed away in 1995. Well, this is fast becoming a reality thanks to global visual effects company Digital Domain, that’s been investing in AI-powered humans “to sound and look like real people” for a decade now.
Digital Domain, founded by Hollywood director James Cameron 30 years ago and now run by Malaysian-born Daniel Seah, has been involved in providing visual effects to many Hollywood blockbusters including Titanic, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe titles such as The Avengers franchise.
Today, it is one of the largest independent visual effects studios with 10 offices in countries such as the United States, Canada, China and India.
Since 2016, the company has also “leaned into technologies of artificial intelligence and virtual reality” by creating “photorealistic and emotionally expressive virtual humans, all in real-time”.
One of its earliest success stories was “reviving” late singer Teng as a hologram on stage to perform three songs with singer Jay Chou at his concert in Taipei back in 2013.
Fast-forward to present, and the company’s AI-driven virtual human has become an important tool of the trade. It came in particularly useful during the pandemic when Digital Domain used it to touch up various Hollywood movies and commercials when actors were unable to come personally to shooting locations or when a project needed additional scenes in post-production.
“There was a time when we had limited resources and limited time, but we could still deliver movies. That’s because virtual humans were the solution,” said Seah to Malaysian media when he was in Kuala Lumpur on June 12 to explore the possibilities of expanding Digital Domain’s operations to South-East Asia.
Seah added that besides the entertainment industry, this technology could be applied in other fields like education, medicine and hospitality as virtual humans can now “interact” with people.
“We can use this technology in education, by having perhaps Elsa from Frozen teach students in China to speak English.
“Or for the elderly at the hospital, we could have Teresa Teng, for example, converse with them, where they might actually have a meaningful and serious conversation with the virtual human. And they would feel cared for,” he said.
At the same time, Seah is the first to agree that with such technology comes the possibility of misuse and potential fraud, not to mention copyright issues. Admitting there is no right answer, Seah asserted that lawmakers play a vital role in setting workable guidelines.
“AI is going to be (an important) topic for every country and government because I truly believe, for the next generation, AI is (going to be) a new resource. And whoever utilises it (fully), is going to be the front runner.”
For now, Seah said it is up to the respective companies to ensure they use the technology with integrity, something Digital Domain has always practised.
He recalled when virtual technology was first introduced, the two major political parties in the US approached Digital Domain to produce a smear campaign ad for the other party. Digital Domain rejected both parties.
Likewise, in Teng’s case, Seah negotiated with the late singer’s brother for a year in order to convince him that the company’s ultimate goal is to honour her as a singer and a person. And in order to pull off the hologram at the Jay Chou concert, Digital Domain bore all costs on making it possible.
“Looking back now, that wasn’t very smart. I wouldn’t do the same thing now. It was a big risk,” Seah said, with a laugh.
“But thankfully, it went more than OK... (The pay-off) was seeing her brother get emotional at seeing his sister on the stage again.
“Of course, people tend to resist new technology. But it’s about how you’re going to use it. If you use it right, technology can help people, it can bring excellent social impacts.”
Seah added: “Ever since we have the licensing for Teresa Teng, you can’t imagine the business applications we’ve received. Medical companies, for example, felt Teresa Teng would be a perfect ambassador to sell Chinese medicine. But, every time, we said no.
“Even though we have the rights to Teresa Teng, I kept asking myself, ‘If Teresa was still alive, would she be OK selling these products.’ And live streaming? It’s just kind of weird. So, we have our own rules of engagement.”
It is this type of integrity and the geopolitical nature of SEA that has brought Seah back to this region, looking for partnership in terms of setting up a computer lab, looking into R&D, either in Malaysia or in Singapore.
“The plan is to set up a media lab in South-East Asia, for a number of reasons – bilingualism, (stable) market, mutual integrity. We are the new Switzerland, right? We don’t take sides – we can do business with China, we can do business with the US.”
Seah said that Digital Domain also wants to partner with “the best university, with professors and graduate students” in this region, as what it has done with the University of Southern California.
“Because investment into university means huge returns. We are basically training our future employees... And Malaysia has a lot of good universities,” said Seah.
“So, if we can set up a media lab here, invest in schools, with government support, I believe that can be a beautiful strategy. Initially, we’re looking for a (studio) size of perhaps 30 to 40 people, and to grow from there.”
Seah added that he felt optimistic about his visit to Malaysia after meeting with officials from Malaysia’s Science, Technology And Innovations Ministry and making a stop at Taylor’s University to talk to the people in charge there.