- Marc Scarpa, the founder and CEO of DeFiance Media, shares his company’s approach to creating custom virtual news anchor Raxana.
- Scarpa will share the benefits of leveraging AI to accurately produce news stories in a fireside chat, “AI Virtual Humans in Broadcast News,” at NAB Show New York.
- Reducing production times and costs, virtual news anchors allow for the delivery of around-the-clock video programming in up to 30 languages.
- He says the technology is not suitable in every case and not yet advanced enough to move from pre-recorded packages into live — but that’s definitely on the horizon.
Virtual humans are an emerging phenomenon likely to be increasingly used by filmmakers on-screen and widespread in hospitality and retail scenarios but perhaps alarmingly beginning to creep into broadcast news and journalism.
The first such virtual humanoid news anchor in the US, Raxana, was unveiled earlier this year as a lead host of DeFiance Daily, a program on streaming channel DeFiance.tv.
Marc Scarpa, founder and CEO of parent company DeFiance Media, is headed to NAB Show New York to share his experiences in creating Raxana and why he is optimistic for the future of broadcast news created and presented using AI tools.
Scarpa will provide his insights in a fireside chat with StoryTech’s Lori H. Schwartz entitled “AI Virtual Humans in Broadcast News.” During the session, Scarpa “will share the benefits of leveraging AI, along with human expertise.” Also, learn how DeFiance Media built a bespoke virtual studio for around-the-clock broadcast news.
“We are not here to destroy journalism; we are here to empower it,” he tells NAB Amplify. “At the end of the day, news producers will still need a workflow that involves humans. Virtual humans are just a device to communicate what those broadcast journalist stories may be.”
Scarpa predicts that virtual humans will become pervasive across all sorts of storytelling genres. “You are seeing it in social media. You will see it in healthcare and education, in other areas of entertainment, and broadcast journalism will not be immune,” he says.
Part of his argument for AI is simple cost efficiency: Local news in the US, as in other parts of the world such as the UK, has been challenged for some time in terms of operating costs. While local news remains an FCC mandate, its continued existence is in contention because of changing business models.
Scarpa says he is a big believer in the value of local news broadcast as a staple of information and culture, but the economics have to change.
“Broadcasters have to find new ways to monetize local news. They’ve not veered from the same business model for the last half century. They have attempted to reduce costs in terms of basic infrastructure in studios and control rooms and now there’s shift in terms of talent from an on-camera presence to virtual humans.”
This could be to the benefit of already stretched on-air talent, suggests Scarpa, since their likeness can be cloned into a digital representation of them.
“This would allow for the ability for known personalities to deliver more news packages without having to physically be there to shoot them and therefore generate more revenue for themselves. It would be a residual (royalty) module that runs on a blockchain.”
Scarpa is putting his theory into practice at DeFiance.tv, a television and digital network reporting on the alternative economy — meaning Web3, AI, VR, and digital asset developments.
Creating and Casting Raxana
During his fireside chat at NAB Show New York, Scarpa will share lessons learned in the course of creating Raxana. DeFiance originally worked with an out-of-the-box solution from Israeli developer Hour One but decided to customize one for their purpose.
“Hour One have fantastic technology, in particular for business-to-business applications, such as virtual humans for customer service, but it was not quite the storytelling device we needed for news. We realized that we needed a virtual human who is representative of our brand and who could communicate well with our audience.”
Instead, DeFiance used Hour One’s templates to create a bespoke virtual human based on an existing news anchor already employed by the network.
“What is most important is you can go and start with a stock character which is something that we did, but ultimately, we chose to create our own. That was a huge shift. Our engagement increased. The resonance with our brand really changed,” he said.
“There is old saying, ‘you have a face for radio,’ which means something intangible about your ability to connect with listeners,” Scarpa says. “I believe there is something similar about people who have an on-camera presence. I am not sure of the science behind it, but some people are able to communicate better than others in front of a camera. That art can be replicated, starting by recording motion capture of the person and delivering their virtual likeness on screen.
“We cast Raxana — based on a real person — to represent this Eurasian human, which studies predict that most humans will have this similar genetic mix in future. In essence, Raxana is the most intelligent journalist that can read a teleprompter in the world, but she is not going to be doing Barbara Walters interviews anytime soon.”
He continues, “How we use virtual humans is very rudimentary and basic at this stage. We are not using it to substitute for investigative journalism or a talk show format. The tech is not there yet, but it will [be]. I have seen AI virtual companion software that is outstanding.”
However, DeFinance is using AI across the news production workflow, not just in presentation.
“We use AI for fact checking and scripting and research and generation of video. We’re utilizing a variety of AI tech in our workflow to deliver factual accurate news packages,” Scarpa says.
Other AI Anchors
While the technology is cutting-edge, Scarpa is not the first to implement it.
In 2018, Chinese News agency Xinhua News unveiled an AI news anchor. A year later, it launched a female AI news anchor, “Xin Xiaomeng,” also developed by Chinese tech firm Sogu, whose voice and image were clones of a reporter named Qu Meng, a news anchor at Xinhua’s New Media Center.
In April this year, Kuwait News introduced “Fedha,” an AI news anchor on Twitter, as a test of its potential to offer new content.
The New Face of News?
Would an artificial news anchor weaken and destroy any faith we have left in broadcast news as a source of trusted information?
Scarpa replies by arguing that Walter Cronkie was the most trusted face of news in history — but that there was still an organization of broadcast journalists behind the camera.
“There are different types of broadcasters. Some are investigative, some report sports or the weather. All the rest of the hosts on our platform are humans who present traditional TV news shows, doing their own independent research and giving their opinions,” he says.
“Raxana’s function is very specific. She is not able to do much, but she is able to do enough for what we want her deliver and to able to package that news up at scale.
“For example, we can create and broadcast a news bulletin every two hours and take that package and auto-translate it into 30 languages. That’s an economy of scale that only AI can achieve. At the same time, we’re getting across information about the new economy out to as many people as possible. That is our focus and that is why Raxana works for us.”
However, live broadcasts are not yet possible. Scarpa says, “If I have a live camera covering the Senate hearings, then I would not feel comfortable having that fed into an AI for real-time commentary as human anchors and journalists do with authority today, but anything pre-taped can work in that manner.”
That said, Scarpa imagines weather presentation to evolve to virtual humans “fairly soon” with some forms of sports commentary to follow — although, again, not where there’s any live interaction between a virtual sports presenter and an athlete, human news anchor or pundit.
“We are not there yet with live. I’ve seen it working and seen you can do it, but it’s not ready for primetime.”