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Cannes Perspectives: Brave new world

Khai Meng..."Sumerian offers huge potential"
Khai Meng..."Sumerian offers huge potential"

Amazon's 3D VR toolkit could be a game-changer for the storytellers in our industry

I have a strange prediction to make. The world of advertising is about to be magically transformed by a pizza – make that two pizzas. This thought was prompted by recent news from Amazon, which is developing a software toolkit to create 3D virtual reality worlds.

One reason for Amazon’s early success was a philosophy of simplicity encapsulated in what it called the "two-pizza" rule. This meant that internal teams were kept so small that when they sent out for pizza in a meeting, they would only need two.

Small teams are, of course, more agile, flexible and efficient. The formula proved highly successful selling books, and now it seems Amazon is going to apply it to the much more diffi cult task of creating universes.

Advertisers need to sit up and take note if they want to promote their wares in these new virtual landscapes. Until now, it has been pretty expensive and complicated to create 3D VR worlds. But Amazon’s new software toolkit will enable almost anybody to make them using a drag-and-drop interface.

The system is called Sumerian, and is populated with hosts called "Sumerians", on hand to help you create your universe. They use the Alexa speech technology and you can configure how they look and act. Unlike people you meet in the real world, you can make them more to your liking. At the moment they look a bit digital, you probably wouldn’t want to take one on a date, but that will change. Thanks to AI learning, the Sumerians will get better. They are already better-looking than us; soon they will be smarter. 

Will the sumerians eat our lunch?
This raises an interesting question: will we one day no longer be able to tell the difference between real people and digital ones? And, if we do, will they be writing the ads? After all, just about everything is getting reduced to an algorithm, is advertising creativity next?

I’m not worried. I’m a firm believer that robots will never tell great stories until they understand what it is to be human, to give birth and attend a friend’s funeral. In fact, I would say storytelling is fundamental to who and what we are: man is the storytelling ape. Maybe this is why Amazon chose the name.

Sumerian was the ancient language of the civilisation of Sumer, which grew up on the banks of the Euphrates. It gave us the first ever written story – the Epic of Gilgamesh – inscribed in cuneiform on clay tablets more than 4,000 years ago. 

A wonderful partnership
 My feeling is that the partnership between the advanced technology and the storytellers could be wonderful. The Sumerians could help us to realise our stories in ways we never dared dream of before. There are unimaginable possibilities here for the poets, the artists, the creatives, the dreamers.

I said robots can’t give birth, but neither can men. So, what if they could experience it? Wouldn’t that lead to greater understanding? Or what if politicians could experience living on the streets for a while? You can be sure that would lead to more humane policies. And wouldn’t we all be more likely to give to charity if we could experience what is was like to walk 10 miles for water every day?

This technology has the power to make the world a better place, and the world of advertising would be transformed, too. Instead of watching a TV ad, you would feature in one. We could take people to the stars and build their dreams. Imagine walking along the water’s edge in the Turks and Caicos, feeling the sand between your toes. Or picture an ad for a safari in Jurassic Park. Or a holiday aboard the Starship Enterprise. You could find out how it feels to be "beamed up" by Scottie. Or step out of a wooden horse to meet Helen of Troy. You could ski in an avalanche of snow. You could live for a while in a Dali painting.

All these experiences would be branded and totally delightful. No-one would never skip a commercial again! For creative teams there would be no such thing as a dull product. It would be like being born again. And how about trying that for a baby product? Experiencing being born. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination.

Mankind has been striving for thousands of years to build a better world. Now it looks like they might have cracked it. And all it took was two pizzas.

A continuing story...

  • 4,000 Approximate number of years since the first written story, the Epic of Gilgamesh

  • 40,000 Possible number of years before the last story will be told. That is when the Voyager space probe, containing a history of the human race, is expected to reach the star system Gliese 445

  • 40,000 Number of "brain" cells found in the human heart, traditionally held to be the seat of emotion and storytelling

  • 8,000 Number of researchers working in Microsoft’s AI research division

  • 1,000 Number of VR "experiences" on offer for the standalone VR headset Oculus Go

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