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Two things happen when an emerging technology is adopted by a major tech company. One, the market (and all of those grassroots startups) are validated. Two, the pressure to perform and swallow up users heightens. The emerging Digital Human space has just entered this moment.

At CES 2020, Samsung unveiled a lofty vision for a project called Neon.

“Neons are” — realistic human avatars that are computationally generated and can interact with you in real time.

Sam Byford, The Verge

Naturally, Neon garnered a lot of buzz, some good some bad, being the first major tech company to get behind this trend that Lil Miquela started a few years ago.

It’s no secret, I’ve been quite the proponent of digital humans, brand avatars, artificial humans (whatever we end up deciding to call them). As you can see from the long list of articles on the topic:

So what’s my overall analysis of this move?

Even though they made it abundantly clear that this isn’t anywhere near being deployable yet, I want to start by saying that I’m quite bullish on the Neon project. Call me a hype man, but I’m very intrigued by what will come out of this Neon project for one major reason.

We’ve seen Digital Humans as Software, thanks to the projects from UneeQ and Soul Machines. Neon is going to show what Digital Humans are capable of when you add a very strong hardware component.

As of June 2018, there were 3.6 billion smartphone users worldwide with Samsung leading the market share at 27% or 893 million phones.

That means that Samsung essentially has 893 million destinations on which it can deploy a digital human. Although Neon said that they’re a separate company from Samsung and isn’t using any Samsung technology. There’s no way that there won’t be a collaboration once Neon is ready to launch (whether that be in 1 year or 5 years).

Take, for example, Apple’s Animoji and Memoji.

They’ve used very complex facial mapping technology to create a digital version of yourself that can be animated to speak. It’s a visually dumbed-down version of brand avatars.

Neon, in the same way, can create a digital version of people from a small amount of video capture. And later animate that digital version of you.

Apple’s Animojis are a huge success, but aren’t very versatile. Three years from now, a dentist’s office wouldn’t greet patients at the door with an Animoji. But they would use a Neon.

Neon recognizes that brand avatars who look like humans stand a better chance at integrating into more parts of our lives. It’s a very futuristic brand in that sense. Will this be an advantage?

Samsung, the First Mover

The question remains as to whether Digital Humans are a market defined by first-movers advantage. Or are they an industry where The Pioneers Die With Arrows in their Backs?

Personally, I believe the opportunity for brand avatars is on par with the smartphone (maybe a notch or two below). So that’s where I’ll draw a comparison.

Look at the Palm Pre device. It was a clear first-mover that didn’t get the advantage. Instead, it’s followers, Android and iOS, both shot arrows at this pioneer’s back.

Released in 2009 by Palm — the same company that popularized the PDA in the 1990s — WebOS pioneered a number of innovations, including multiple synchronized calendars, unified social media and contact management, curved displays, wireless charging, integrated text and Web messaging, and unintrusive notifications.

Matthew Sheffield, Salon

webOS was way ahead of its time. So much so that iOS and Android are still copying it to this day. Yet, webOS is nowhere to be seen. They pioneered the course of smartphone history and shared in none of the riches.

Neon appears to be showing us the future in very much the same way. But in this equation, will they be webOS or iOS?

A Few Questions Remain

In looking at the budding industry for Digital Humans and Brand Avatars, I see two distinct sub-disciplines.

One, you have the SaaS model where brand avatars to be integrated into stores, hospitals, banks, restaurants, cars, homes, etc. UneeQ is the company leading the charge here by bringing digital human software to companies such as UBS, BMW, and Vodafone.

Two, you have the hardware integration model. In this discipline, Apple, Google, Samsung, etc. all find a way to integrate digital humans into our daily behaviors in the same way they’re trying to merge voice assistants into our lives.

How will Samsung mobilize Neon?

Does Neon become the visual component to Bixby? They’ve made it clear that Neon is not a Bixby innovation at all. Still I cannot imagine them bypassing the opportunity for people to visually customize Bixby. Because I could see Siri getting a face one day.

Or does Neon go its own way and become our very own digital replica? Perhaps my “digital guardian” Neon communicates on my behalf when I’m busy. If I’m on the phone when someone else is texting, then Neon will give them a personal video saying that I’ll be with them shortly.

Regardless, I’m very fascinated to see how Samsung (and eventually Apple and Google) deploy digital humans. These companies’ reach and distribution is so wide. And their brand evangelists are all ready for that next big thing.

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