Astronaut Terry Virts was trained to deal with cutting-edge technology and high-stress situations on his numerous space missions, but NASA failed to prepare him for his latest career challenge: sitting absolutely still for hours in a small studio in Los Angeles and baring his soul.
“This is far more stressful,” he says, only half-joking.
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The two-day shoot for StoryFile — a mobile app expected to launch in the fall — saw a 360-degree volumetric camera rig capture Virts’ answers to hundreds of questions about his life and career. The result: a holographic version of the astronaut that can interact with viewers. “You’ll be able to have a conversation with me and ask me anything,” says Virts, who spent more than 200 days in space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour and the International Space Station on a pair of missions between 2010 and 2015.
StoryFile uses artificial intelligence and natural-language processing to allow the platform to mimic a real conversation, preserving the subject’s answers for future generations to explore. The app will present the stories of historically significant people, as well as putting that tech into the hands of everyday users, allowing families to document the lives of their loved ones.
The company was founded by the wife-and-husband team of Heather and Stephen Smith. “Our initial inspiration for the whole idea came from trying to replicate the memories of Holocaust survivors for the public, especially the Q&A parts,” says Heather Smith. “We saw that the Q&A parts really engaged audiences, and then we realized that so many people wanted to do the same thing for themselves and create memories for their families and children and grandchildren.”
While that was the catalyst, the tech wasn’t available a decade ago when the couple started, Smith says. “Back then it was very expensive and labor-intensive,” she explains. “We knew it had to be automated, and by 2017 the technology had advanced enough where we could take it further and really refine the concept.”
Since then, StoryFile has filmed about 20 full-length interviews, including the one with Virts, as well as some 30 shorter ones. “Others are scheduled and in the pipeline,” says Smith.
“It means that anyone will be able to talk to someone like Terry — someone they’d probably never otherwise get to meet — and have a conversation and learn from their experiences,” she notes. “Imagine being able to do that with scientists, artists, athletes, musicians, politicians, writers and so on. It’s a really revolutionary way of dealing with aural history, but it’s still a very new technology, and I think the upcoming beta launch will help people get used to it and see the endless possibilities it offers.”
Smith says the technology also has a strong library component, both for private and public users.
“We’re talking to museums about doing this with some very high-profile names, and we also see applications ranging from online education to hiring and even dating,” she says. “There are many directions we could take it, but right now we’re focused on getting the app out there and getting it scalable.”