John Gaeta has already made his mark on pop culture once. As the visual effects supervisor on The Matrix, he’s the person who created bullet time and many of that film’s other groundbreaking visuals. These days, though, he’s focused on the metaverse—and he’s hoping to make an even bigger impact.
Gaeta began transitioning away from the film world in 2008 or 2009. Like many pioneers in visual effects who explored game development and found themselves in the lab scene of Silicon Valley, he enjoys working on emerging technologies. Gaeta says he’s a storyteller at heart, though, not a technical person. And earlier this year, he joined Inworld AI as Chief Creative Officer to help the company achieve its vision of bringing artificial intelligence to virtual worlds.
Inworld, founded in July 2021, wants to make static characters more lifelike. So, for instance, when you interact with a non-player character in a game, it won’t be limited to just three or four lines of looping dialogue. Instead, using advanced AI, those characters would have unique personalities, with their own thoughts, memories, and behaviors.
Investors are backing the concept. Last month, Inworld closed on a Series A round of $50 million, led by Section 32 and Intel Capital, with additional investments from Founders Fund, Microsoft’s M12 fund, and Kleiner Perkins, among others. That brought its total funding to $70 million.
“It’s not a Turing test,” Gaeta tells Fast Company. “It’s a character test. Is this character able to surprise me? Can it make me excited? Can it tell me something I didn’t know? Can it point me in a direction that leads to the furthering of an experience? In a story rich world, success is anybody you talk to could be interesting enough to hold your attention as long as you like, and you could come back to [them] day after day.”
For now, of course, those sorts of interactions are more likely to happen in the video game world, but they have broader potential, Gaeta says, as the metaverse begins to take shape.
“No one can predict, at the beginning, how people will use new forms,” he says. “Some people assume the metaverse is something they saw in a movie or read in a book, but in my opinion, it’s the connection between all digital things that are able to find one another. The spatial internet is going to be like games, but it’s not only going to be 3D things; it’s going to be awareness of the real world–all the smart city stuff will be part of the metaverse. All of the autonomous things we’re making for vehicles and devices and all of these things we’re building around us as we move into the future. All of those things could talk to each other and contribute to something we might default call the metaverse.”
Additionally, he says, virtual reality and mixed reality will be fused together. And he sees a great opportunity to create a decentralized platform where creatives can thrive.
Creators, he says, will have huge opportunities to create something of high value or that others enjoy and will ideally be able to monetize that without having to depend on a large corporate presence or a bank, as is the model now for many film and game makers.
“I absolutely believe the everyday person, be they a confident creative or just some kid, should be empowered to create and own and propagate the things they make,” says Gaeta. “I think we’re in a potentially highly disruptive time where some companies—and some tech—are enabling the ability [for people] to create and prosper from their creations. I think characters and avatars are kind of the same. They’re identities. They’re personas. And they could become very attractive and popular to others, just like personalities and actors in the real world.”
Many of those scenarios lie in the future, though. For now, Gaeta says, the metaverse is nothing like what most people expect it to become. And that, in some ways, is what makes the potential of the metaverse so exciting.
“There’s a lot of early experimentation, but it’s not mainstream yet,” he says. “It’s a time of learning. And during this time, as it’s really still a moment of early adopter/frontier-like people who want to check this stuff out. The question is: What do you expect from a virtual world or destination? Of course, regardless of the use case, you don’t want it to essentially be a handful of frontier-like/early adopter users.”
Worlds, he says, have to be vibrant and full of life. And that’s what he’s trying to do at Inworld.
“I’ve been thinking about this for years,” he says. “The answer [to making worlds feel real] is to bring in characters who are capable of understanding this world and their place in it and the relationships between everyone else in there, be they human or non-human—basically, to populate worlds with thinking characters.”