US-developed virtual AI host stars in CCTV’s Spring Festival Web Gala show

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Screenshot: CCTV host Sa Beining (left) and his virtual doppelgänger (right). 

Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) featured a virtual host in its Spring Festival Web Gala show, published online on Monday, turning to an American artificial intelligence company to provide its technical capabilities.

The Web Gala introduced a virtual doppelgänger of CCTV’s Sa Beining, nicknamed “Xiao Sa,” to co-host the event. While his appearance and gestures were impressively lifelike, he talked in a noticeably robotic timbre.

The two-hour Web Gala is not to be confused with the trademark New Year’s Gala, which CCTV broadcasts live every lunar new year’s eve. However, they share similar themes: this year, the Web Gala’s slogan was “bring love back home,” tying in with the other event’s theme of homecoming.

Xiao Sa was developed by US-based artificial intelligence startup ObEN, which also created 3D models of three other CCTV hosts, according to ChinaNews.com (in Chinese). Company co-founder Zheng Yi, also known as Adam Zheng, said that modeling software like 3DS Max and Maya was used to analyze and construct the models’ faces and bodies.

Hosts were required to record around a dozen sounds in order to create a voice model, while AI and motion capture technology was used to record and replicate gestures and expressions. The process of creating virtual TV hosts for the show took 20 days.

CCTV’s Spring Festival Web Gala was first introduced in 2011, presumably in an attempt to win over younger audience members. Despite its prominence, the higher-profile New Year’s Gala has attracted criticism in recent years for a blackface skit, ugly mascots, and a basic format that hasn’t changed in decades.

Hundreds of millions of viewers will doubtless tune in again this Chinese New Year’s eve, not least because CCTV is partnering with Baidu to give away over RMB 1 billion (around $150 million) in “red packets” in the next week.