Hour One raises $5M Seed to generate AI-driven synthetic characters from real humans

All of the people pictured above are real, but what you are seeing are synthetically generated versions of their real selves. And they can be programmed to say anything. Tech futurists have long warned about humans being replaced by life-like AI-driven figures, where it would be almost impossible to tell between machine and human. Indeed, there’s even a new book on this subject of “deep fakes.”

But that future comes a step closer today with the news that Hour One, which creates AI-driven synthetic characters based on real humans, closes a $5 million seed funding led by Galaxy Interactive (via its Galaxy EOS VC Fund), Remagine Ventures and Kindred Ventures (with participation of Amaranthine).

Hour One will use the funds to scale its AI-driven cloud platform, onboard “thousands” of new characters and expand its commercial activities.

Founded in 2019, Hour One develops technologies for creating high-quality digital characters based on real people. The idea is to generate production-grade video-based characters in a highly scalable and cost-effective way. The upshot of this is that what appears to be a real human could talk about any product or subject at all, to the point of infinite scale.

This was showcased at its “real or synthetic” likeness test at CES 2020, challenging people to distinguish between real and synthetic characters generated by its AI.

Oren Aharon, Hour One’s founder and CEO, said in a statement: “We believe that synthetic characters of real people will become a part of our everyday life. Our vision is that Hour One will drive the use of synthetic characters to improve the quality of communication between businesses and people across markets and use cases. By enabling each person to create their own character together with our scalable cloud platform, we will provide a variety of solutions for next-gen remote business-to-human interactions.”

Hour One is currently working with companies in the e-commerce, education, automotive, communication, and enterprise sectors, with expanded industry applications expected throughout 2020.

The company also showcased its “real or synthetic” likeness test at CES 2020, challenging people to distinguish between real and synthetic characters generated by its AI.

The real issue, however, is how will this technology be deployed without it being abused.

Lior Hakim, co-founder and CTO, says this potential problem is dealt with via encryption technologies to secure the use and rights of the characters enabling “anyone to identify our videos as well as mark them as altered to notify the viewers.” The company also says it has an ethical policy code for how its technology is used.

Sam Englebardt, co-founder and managing director of Galaxy Interactive, says the startup’s “ethics-driven approach to the creation of synthetic video” is key and that “given how challenging production with live actors has become as a result of COVID-19, now is the perfect time for businesses of all sizes to produce their content with Hour One’s synthetic characters.”

Clearly this will reduce the cost of synthetic character creation, meaning any textual content could be “automatically translated into a live-action video of a person that engages an audience by speaking the text,” said Eze Vidra, co-founder and managing partner at Remagine Ventures.

Speaking to TechCrunch, Business strategy lead for Hour One Natalie Monbiot said the company has a unique ability to onboard “basically any human being and turn them into a synthetic character that’s a lifelike replica of that person. So it’s not an avatar or a version of that person. It really does look and behave like that person. You can then basically generate new content by uploading new texts. So, for example, in e-commerce, you can pick your characters and get them to present your product or do a product presentation. This means every single product SKU can have its own video presentation.”