Virtual Influences and Digital Humans at Scale: Isaac Bratzel

Isaac Bratzel is one of the world’s leading experts on digital humans and virtual influencers. He is founder & CEO of Avataros, a new company that seeks to offer extraordinary cross-platform avatars at scale while not losing the human connection in the virtual world.

Digital Human AVA

He was previously one of the key members of Brud. The Amercian-based Brud became famous for making one of the world’s most significant digital influencers, lil Miquela. As Chief Design & Innovation Officer at Brud, Isaac was responsible for leading the effort of creating Miquela, building pipelines and capabilities that allowed a small team to produce high-quality content in very tight timelines.

In addition to accumulating over 8 million followers across social media (including about 3 million on Instagram), Miquela has been featured in countless major publications including Refinery29, Vogue, Buzzfeed, Nylon, The Guardian, and The Cut, among many more. The character has also collaborated with brands such as Samsung and Prada. ‘She’ became the first digital avatar to sign with a talent agency when she became CAA’s first virtual client. In 2018 Time had already named Milquela one of the 25 most influential people on the internet, highlights since then include interviewing J Balvin live at Coachella, a Calvin Klein commercial with Bella Hadid, and a remotely produced Music Video “Hard Feelings”, entirely in UE4.

An earlier avatar : Amelia was a Digital Cognitive Agent created for IPsoft.

Brud, and the team of designs and media specialists did more than just Miquela while Isaac was there. The company was positioned as ‘problem solvers specializing in robotics, artificial intelligence, and transmedia applications’, but after the company was acquired by Dapper Labs, Isaac decided to move on and set up his own company.

The new company is called Avataros, as in Avatar OS: Operating System. It has just launched as a creative center to allow companies to make their own digital humans by harnessing the best and most complex interdependent new technologies and offering them in an accessible and scalable way to organizations.

Fxguide’s Mike Seymour interviewed Isaac as part of an Epic Games panel in 2021. As part of that engagement, Mike asked how Isaac thought users reacted to the evolving look of Miquela as technology had allowed since her first appearance 5 or 6 years earlier? Clearly, her renderings were getting more and more realistic. Isaac commented to the effect that ‘Oh they don’t care if she is real, – just that she is authentic’. This is actually an incredible insight. Having crossed the Uncanny Valley, Miquela (as a digital human) is not offputting, but nor was she photoreal. But once she was realistic enough and yet still obviously digital, users didn’t seek further realism so much as an authentic attitude and persona. One could argue there is a parallel to the Uncanny Valley, perhaps the ‘cognitive cliff’ – where the character’s presence and persona needs to pass muster, and that plays more importantly than seeking ever more realistic rendering. This is not true in films and TV where a less than fully visually realized character would jar a viewer out of the story – in much the same way as a poor green screen would. But in the online influencer world, after one achieves a professional level of representation, – the ‘authenticity’ of the character is more paramount.

This perspective then poses a critical issue for someone who is a world expert on authentic digital humans and yet seeks to provide this authenticity at scale. We asked Isaac how he was going to approach this problem, as an authentic experience is one the hardest thing to replicate and scale? “I really agree,” he comments. “Creators really need to solve that piece. Maybe we can help too, but what we really want to solve is helping creators to then be able to produce animated content within a more realistic and scalable budget and timeline, so that once they have that audience and story they want to tell, they’re not blocked.”  The new company is launching by “creating the toolset that would have allowed Miquela and Brud to really scale production, without costs going exponential,” he adds.  “That involves being able to create more lifelike and realistic style characters and being able to have them move in dynamic and believable ways while captivating an audience. It’s no small task by any means, but one we’ll have a lot of fun working on.”

 

He chose to form a new company as he has always been drawn to smaller nibble startup companies. He believes he learned an enormous amount from Trevor McFedries & Sara Decou who founded Brud in 2014, along with Brud’s Chief Content Officer: Nicole de Ayora. He now seeks to run his own team.

“Our avatar operating system will enable dynamic avatars for any platform, unlocking the human potential within the virtual ecosystem, and allowing virtual talent to scale like software.”

Isaac believes the key is to break the problem of digital humans into smaller manageable pieces and also to take advantage of standards and industry best practices such as Epic Games MetaHuman.  “What is exciting to me is this is leading to standards and I think interoperability is going to be a big thing that will allow a lot of really interesting things to happen,” he comments. He points to teams that are building data sets libraries of motion “with high levels of abstraction, especially when combined with AI… I think people are just starting to do these things and one of the things I think we have always been really good at is leveraging new technology and putting various technologies together to make an authentic interaction. That is at the core of what I am interested in doing.”

Screen shot of a new Avatar

The company’s aim is not to be focused on low-cost budget solutions, it aims to produce impactful and often real-time solutions that harness advanced machine learning to make a technical avatar workflow that is manageable and predictable.  But Isaac is well aware that this is a long-term aim, no matter how fast the AI community seems to be moving. “Ziva was acquired by Unity and also Epic is doing amazing work, so two of the biggest players in independent game engines are heading in this general direction,” he comments. “So for us, it is really interesting to see what we can leverage from them and then what specialist areas we can develop ourselves.”

The second aspect of digital humans is the backend of an ‘AI brain’. “We are talking to a lot of companies about that and we are going pretty deep on how to connect conversation AI and other technology to lifelike avatars,” he explains. The company sees tremendous scope to produce more engaging interactions with the correct innovative application of these technologies, especially in interactive real-time applications. But the company is not focused on neural rendering, Isaac sees the future in immersive experiences built on more classic 3D rendering approaches. While the company is well aware of the neural rendering possibilities, he feels the longer-term solution will be more traditional 3D.