Five years ago, a start-up called Intellitar garnered massive media attention by promising its users “virtual eternity.” “We want to give users the gift of immortality,” its co-founder and CEO Don Davidson told reporters when the Huntsville, Alabama-based company launched.
Intellitar was selling its “immortality” service for $25 a month to people who wanted to create a digital doppelgänger that would live on even after their death. Customers uploaded a photo of themselves to Intellitar’s “Virtual Eternity” website, took a personality test, provided a voice sample and then trained their avatars’ “brains”—an artificial-intelligence engine—by feeding it stories, memories and photos. The result, the company said, was an animated avatar that your family, friends, and great-great-grandchildren could talk to, even after you went to the big database in the sky.
Unfortunately, the company itself was not immortal. It shut down in 2012, with only 10,000 customers signed up. If you visit Intellitar’s website today, you find the digital equivalent of a boarded-up store front.
“A lot of people had created avatars and built their knowledge base. Some had captured images and pictures and used it the way it was intended to be used,” said Intellitar’s CEO, Don Davidson, in a recent phone interview. “We sent out a notice letting them know the service would be turned off in 90 days and it basically wound down.”
When Intellitar launched Virtual Eternity in 2010, it already had at least one functioning avatar: a digital clone of Davidson whose uncanny valley effect creeped out quite a few journalists who interviewed it.