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Machine Learning Tech Used to Bring Nile Rodgers’ Portrait to Life

A virtual reality project has been launched by a UK start-up technology firm, the National Portrait Gallery, Universal Music and the world-famous Abbey Road recording studios to bring to life a portrait of the musician, Nile Rodgers. Machine learning processes have been used to allow the portrait to interact with anyone comes into contact with. Essentially, this means that the image of Rodgers adapts to certain situations and will be able to answer questions put to it through voice command techniques. The company behind the idea, Forever Holdings, has used the artful project, named ‘In the Room with Nile Rodgers’, to promote its artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) credentials, but what does it say about art and technology today?

Denise Vogelsang, the National Portrait Gallery’s Director of Digital, said that her team was delighted to have been associated with such an ingenious project. “By making this exciting and voice-interactive portrait available on our website,” she said, “We hope to inspire new audiences and explore new ways of telling stories.” Vogelsang went on to add that the project demonstrated how it was now possible harness the benefits of the latest digital technologies in virtual art.

Digital Interactivity

The experience with Nile Rodgers, as Forever Holdings describes its project, lets people pose questions to a virtual rendition of Rodgers with a similar technology to that which is found in voice-enable home assistants. The difference with ‘In the Room with Nile Rodgers’ is that machine learning algorithms have been programmed specifically to allow the software respond to things that are put to it in a way that should get better and better the more it is used. Another key difference with a typical voice assistant is that users need to push a button and speak into the device they are using so that extraneous chat is not fed into the system. The idea is that people will ask the virtual Rodgers questions about his music, his life and his career. However, there is nothing to stop questioners asking about other things should they wish.

In order to make the project work, Forever Holdings needed a significant amount of access to Rodgers. The musician, famous for his trademark rhythmic guitar sound, spent two days being interviewed. In all, around 350 questions were put to him with a pair of high definition 3-D cameras filming his answers. It is hoped that the machine learning system will now successfully be able to marry up the questions it receives with the appropriate responses from the real Rodgers, only this time delivered by a VR representation of him. As well as the National Portrait Gallery’s own website the VR version of Rodgers can be accessed at by anyone with a voice-enabled smart device.

A Developing Concept

A trial version of the VR experience is available to the public without charge. However, an online pass will need to be bought to gain access to the full version of the project. This extension package costs £20, a proportion of which will be donated to the National Portrait Gallery to support its other projects. Although the online experience offers a great deal – certainly for fans of innovative art, interactive technology and funky guitars – but it is not being delivered as it was originally intended to. The idea was initially conceived as a physical VR installation that attendees would visit. Needless to say, the coronavirus crisis meant that these plans necessarily had to be altered to a home-based audience instead.

From the outset, the project has been supported by Innovate UK and a consortium of technology teams that included the award winning designers at Bright White Ltd and researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University as well as Forever Holdings. The group said that behind what was a relatively simple user interface there were, in fact, some hugely complicated design and production processes going on behind scenes. In a statement, the consortium said that advanced video technique, natural language data production methods and complex asset design all needed to be developed to bring the project to fruition.

Human-Focussed Technology

“In The Room With Nile Rodgers showcases brand new technical developments in voice recognition,” said Sarah Coward, Forever Holding’s founder. “[The project]…has broken new ground, not just through the use of state-of-the-art natural language processing technologies but by the value it places on person-to-person interactions.” Coward went on to say that she thought bringing realism and authenticity to audiences through VR was important. According to her, it is necessary for technology companies to fight back against the ‘deepfake’ narrative that makes some people wary of human-to-machine relationships.

Jennifer Hills, a senior vice-president at Universal Music UK’s Creative & Commercial Partnerships division, echoed the sentiment. She said that with music lovers’ ability to attend live concerts temporarily stalled, this digital experience would provide something special for audiences. “It is a new tool for artists to connect with fans individually the world over, too,” she added.

For his part, the subject of the piece, Nile Rodgers himself, said that he hoped the project will help people to understand more about his journey and his life in the music industry. “It offers the opportunity to people I might otherwise never get to meet the chance to ask me questions and share their thoughts in a completely new way,” he said. “I love this because I believe that the core of music is based in human connections and a personal story that needs to be told.”

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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