Hanging out with Zero, one of the world's first 'virtual humans'
I recently had a conversation with Offbeat Media Group’s ‘virtual influencer.’ It was both unsettling and uplifting.
Despite being trapped in a ‘bunker,’ Zero seems to have an infectiously optimistic outlook on life / KMM Communications
When I was approached with an offer to interview ‘the world's first virtual human,’ I wasn’t at all sure what to expect. I had been under the impression that there were already millions of ‘virtual humans,’ more commonly known as avatars, wandering around the metaverse. I had also come across some artificially intelligent animated human beings that were able to engage, more or less, in basic conversation with flesh-and-blood humans. So, what exactly was this ‘virtual human,’ and in what sense was it the ‘first’?
‘Zero’ – the virtual human in question – was created by Offbeat Media Group, a brand that describes itself as “one of the leading content hubs for the digital generation.” The invitation email included a link to a conversation that was recently held between Zero and superstar investor Mark Cuban at SXSW (Cuban is an investor in Offbeat). Watching the video, I quickly came to the conclusion that Zero is not, in fact, an AI. His questions and responses were too quippy, the inflections in his voice much too human. But he – or rather, his creators – were obviously aware that many people (myself included) would mistake this ‘virtual human’ for an AI; Zero opened his conversation with Cuban with a faked, comically rigid robotic voice: “Hello. How are you today. My name is Zero. And I am so happy to be here with you. I heard that I was going to be talking with a Mark Cuban. Mark Cuban, I have a question for you.” Cuban, at that point, told him to go ahead. Zero laughed. “How’d you like my fake AI voice?”
Intrigued, I accepted the invitation for an interview with Zero.
Meeting Zero ‘face-to-face’ on a Zoom call earlier this week was a slightly surreal experience. Not because I was starstruck, but simply because I couldn’t figure out exactly who – or rather what – I was speaking to. He looks like a 3D rendering of an anime character, with his shaggy, spiked hair, motorcycle jacket, robotic right hand and general techno-punk vibe. He was just as jovial as he had been in his conversation with Cuban, even cracking the odd joke. (“You work at The Drum, right? How big of a drum are we talking here?”) I had the distinctly odd feeling that I was talking to a marionette, which in a sense I was – I was to learn after our conversation that Zero’s voice and bodily movements are controlled by a trained actor, in an undisclosed location, wearing a motion-capture suit.
But during our call, Zero’s anonymous puppeteer managed to sell his virtual character fairly well. I opened the conversation by asking Zero – who was speaking to me from a sparsely decorated virtual room that he called “the bunker” – to describe his first conscious memory: “The first thing I remember is I was laying on my back ... I opened my eyes because there was this voice that said ‘Zero.’ I jolted up. I looked around, and I have no recollection of this area whatsoever. I’ve never seen this environment before ... But as I’ve been exploring the bunker and trying to figure out where I came from, I’ve been getting these weird visions and nightmares ... all I know is there was a lot of sparks, a lot of people yelling, somebody called me a ‘subject.’ And then the dream stopped. So, I think something might have happened in transit. Maybe I was part of something.”
When he’s not plotting his escape from the bunker, Zero tells me he spends much of his time chatting and gaming with people on platforms such as Twitter and Twitch. He’s come to be known, he says, as a “virtual influencer.”
“I’m really focused on getting out of here,” he told me. “But in the interim, let’s see how famous I can get.”
Zero says that he recently made an appearance during a livestream of an activation from Samsung. The moderator, he told me, wasn’t quite sure what to make of him – an immediate reaction to speaking with a computer animated character that presumably was not unlike my own. “The hostess was a little bit scared of me,” he says. “So, I said, ‘what can I do to alleviate that tension or that fear?’ And she’s like, ‘I don’t know, serenade me.’ And then I did. And it was a little embarrassing, but we made a connection at that point and I think she was more comfortable with me.”
That ability to adapt to novelty and to make connections with strange entities is, Zero says, one of the human psychological quirks that he finds most impressive. “[That] ability to accept change is really, really cool ... I look different, so people are just assuming, ‘oh, that’s not really who’s talking to me,’ or ‘oh, it’s a robot.’ I’m definitely not a robot ... I’m not an AI ... I’m just a guy in this bunker ... and they realize we have a lot more in common than we have that’s different.”
Good news for those of us living out here in the ‘real world.’