After weeks of teasing, getting assets leaked, and tweeting excitedly, Samsung's Neon project has finally arrived. And it's still a bit unclear how this is all going to come together. As close as we can gather, it's a highly realistic, AI-powered avatar which one can interact with via large, vertical displays.
According to Samsung, Neon is a "computationally created virtual being" which acts and looks like a "real human," with the ability to "show emotions and intelligence." Okay. Samsung is vehement in a press release that Neon is not a virtual assistant, helper app, or bot, but rather some kind of artificially intelligent digital "being" which can interact with real people in an unrehearsed and spontaneous manner. The project's lead Pranav Mistry is the head of Samsung's STAR Labs (Samsung Technology & Advanced Research Labs), and has been hinting at something beyond your standard Siri-fare on Twitter for several months. Mistry's feed is a mixture of tweets and retweets that touch on philosophy, AI innovation, avatars-as-people, and quasi-mystical pondering.
"Neon is like a new kind of life," Mistry is quoted as saying in Samsung's press release on the project, "There are millions of species on our planet and we hope to add one more." Apparently those new species Mistry is discussing will be based on Samsung's CORE R3 "proprietary technology platform" — a vague set of technologies that the company says "leapfrogs in the domains of Behavioral Neural Networks, Evolutionary Generative Intelligence and Computational Reality." The CORE R3 will connect to another service named SPECTRA, which will link these artificial humans to what sounds like some monetization schemes. In fact, it sounds as if Samsung intends for the Neon "humans" to take on the tasks of things like TV anchors, actors, and models, and plans to show off the system on "large displays" that render "100% realistic life-size Neons." So, big TVs, basically (a perfect fit for a company showing off a lot of 8K TVs right now). Although Samsung told Input that Neon was "software-agnostic and able to run on any display from smartphones to computer or movie screens." Beyond that, it's unclear what kind of hardware is backing these "humans" and what software beyond the CORE R3 system is employed in making this all work.
It's probably worth noting that STAR doesn't seem to have a website or any publicly available information about its projects, though Indeed shows 11 open jobs for the company, including Applied Research Scientist, Art Director, and Senior Rigging Artist. All of the jobs say the company is "building new immersive and intelligent services that is making science fiction a reality." It's also interesting that S.T.A.R Labs is historically a fictitious organization from the pages of DC comic books, first appearing in Superman stories in 1971.
In early leaked videos of the system in action, you can indeed see what appears to be shockingly lifelike avatars moving and speaking in incredibly natural ways. The company notes that "scenarios shown at our CES Booth and in our promotional content are fictionalized and simulated for illustrative purposes only," so we don't really know how much the end result will look or act like the concepts we've seen thus far. Though the on-screen characters appear to be completely computer-generated, they're most certainly based on real people (something Samsung notes in its press release), as YouTuber Good Content uncovered while researching the project. A Samsung spokesperson says that in the future, Neon characters will be created entirely from scratch.
We still don't know how responsive this system will be to real world interactions, where Samsung plans to deploy these "beings," and how this project will eventually make money for the company, though the release hints at the idea of avatars being licensed to work in customer service positions, healthcare, and hospitality roles. Samsung also says it could offer subscriptions to these Neons, and expects them to wind up in movies, on TV, and as "companions" for people. With a price tag, presumably. This is something akin to virtual Instagram influencer Lil Miquela, whose online presence has become increasingly popular and increasingly less interesting.
Samsung will be demoing this product live at CES, so we'll be sure to bring you video and way more details once we interact with the system. If it lives up to even half of the hype Samsung is creating, it could be a phenomenal new form of digital interaction for consumers. But that's a big if, and Samsung has stumbled more than once on its big promises. More than anything, it's hard to shake the feeling that this whole thing is some kind of setup, meant to prime an audience for some other, more tenable and realistic product Samsung wants to ship. I hope not, because the concept and the visuals of Neon seem groundbreaking, and if the company can deliver on the interaction it's promising, this could be a whole new vista for Samsung explore.