Thu Sep 09 2021 Michael McQueen

We’ve all heard of virtual reality, and by now we’ve also all heard of augmented reality, but the most recent version of these alternate worlds comes with an entirely new term: synthetic reality.  Bringing with it countless new opportunities for business, this technology is being used in the most unexpected of places – not least of which the recently announced comeback concert of renowned pop group: ABBA.

AR overlays digital information on real-world objects by using the camera on a mobile device, while VR obscures the real world and the user is immersed in a fully digital experience. Distinct from both of these, synthetic reality involves images, videos, sounds, or any other form of content that has been generated, edited, or enabled by artificial intelligence. In other words, it is content that has been automatically created or edited. One form of this we might all be familiar with is deepfake, hyper-realistic AI-generated images and videos that are almost interchangeable with the real thing.

The possibilities for synthetic reality usage in business and marketing are endless. Nestle, partnered with digital people creator Soul Machines, is already forging a path with a synthetic reality baking assistant named Ruth. Ruth the Cookie Coach, a hybrid of human and digital, offers coaching and assistance in cookie baking to users who can customise recipes and receive instant advice in their cooking. In place of pre-recoding, or emotionally-stunted, robot-like AI, Ruth’s engagement is interactive and human-like in emotional intelligence. Users can chat with her synthesised voice as she guides them through the creation of a chocolate chip cookie recipe.[1]

The making of Ruth the Cookie Coach involved several years of customer research implemented by Nestle and Soul Machines. Data was gathered through customer questions across call centres, social media and recipe responses. Combined with the advice of Nestle Corporate Pastry Chef Meredith Tomason and the technological expertise of Soul Machines, this research amounted to an extraordinarily lifelike and interactive synthetic reality invention.[2]

Beyond the world of baking, synthetic reality in the form of deepfake is being used by companies like Gillette in their advertising. Chris Ume, founder of the company Metaphysic, is the creator of the Tom Cruise deepfake that did the rounds on social media earlier this year. Ume’s company Metaphysic was recently hired by Gillette to assist in creating an advertisement featuring a young Deion Sanders, appearing as he did on the 1989 NFL draft day.[3] The latest Gillette razor in hand, he boasts that ‘when you look good you feel good, and when you feel good, you prime time good’.[4] As the video flicks back to an actual 1989 interview, the accuracy of the deepfake becomes clearly visible.

The creation of synthetic reality is becoming more accessible to businesses and brands. Synthesia recently raised a $12.5M Series A to develop its AI-enabled video generation platform, which allows companies to quickly generate a video without cameras, actors or microphones, and at relatively low cost. Users select from a choice of actors and create an avatar, who verbalises any text or information that is entered. Recognising the popularity of video as an educational format and the growing demand for content creation, the company’s capabilities are geared towards corporate communications, training videos and department updates.[5]

Similarly, Genies is making synthetic reality creation accessible to consumers. Already offering 2D avatar creation that allows celebrities to make appearances virtually, the company is now expanding to 3D. Collaborating with brands like Gucci, this technology allows consumers to create a 3D avatar resembling themselves, to more effectively interact with products online.[6]

In the world of entertainment, synthetic reality is causing disruptions of equal measure with the creation of virtual celebrities. The recent appearance of virtual Youtuber Kizuna AI on Japanese talk show Downtown DX demonstrated this disruption, chatting and laughing with talk show hosts with all the ease and charisma of a real celebrity. Created in 2016, Kizuna AI has risen in popularity over the last 5 years, leading the way for YouTube new brand of vloggers and influencers – VTubers. This version of the Youtuber is completely digital, interacting with humans over YouTube and various other platforms, including real-world ones like live concerts and talk shows.[7]

Just like real celebrities and YouTubers, businesses are jumping at the chance to employ these synthetic stars as influencers and representatives of their brands. Coming in forms such as Miquela  Sousa, a digital Instagram celebrity or Shudu, a digital supermodel, these influencers have worked with brands as esteemed as Chanel and Esquire. Miquela Sousa was even recently interviewed by digital fashion publication Business of Fashion. With a persona that is as politically progressive as the typical human influencer without any of the possible skeletons in the closet, it is easy to see why such a futuristic fusion of digital and real worlds would be so attractive to big brands.[8]

But the use of synthetic reality in entertainment doesn’t end there. The recent glimpse at the comeback concert of the timeless global sensation ABBA boasts uses of synthetic reality far more dynamic and dazzling than those already mentioned. The four members of the Swedish pop group, now well into their 70s, will perform their soon-to-be-released album Voyage as digital versions of their young selves – avatars, or the popular play on words, ‘ABBAtars’.[9]

Collaborating with Industrial Light & Magic, the band members have performed the songs from their new album wearing special equipment that allows for the mapping of their mannerisms and movements. This information, combined with archived footage of previous performances and current audio, will make up the data used to program and create their digital selves. This merging of digital tech and live recording will be turned into ‘digital characters’ who will perform in a purpose-built London arena, equipped with intricate digital technology and computer enhancing.[10]

From Cookie Coaches to digital influencers to modern-day ‘dancing queens’, the creations of synthetic reality are changing the game across every industry. With capabilities that thrive in both digital and real-world environments, the possibilities for this technology across all kinds of business, marketing, collaboration, science and entertainment really are endless.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now. 

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[1] Soul Machines 2021, ‘NESTLÉ® TOLL HOUSE® & Soul Machines introduce the COOKIE COACH™’, Soul Machines, 24 February.

[2] Soul Machines 2021, ‘NESTLÉ® TOLL HOUSE® & Soul Machines introduce the COOKIE COACH™’, Soul Machines, 24 February.

[3] Entrepreneur en Espagnol 2021, ‘His Tom Cruise 'Deepfake' Videos Driven TikTok Crazy; you now have an Artificial Intelligence company’, Entrepreneur, 9 August

[4] Gillette 2021, ‘Deion’s Draft Night | Gillette’, YouTube, 29 April.

[5] Crook, J 2021, ‘Synthesia’s AI video generation platform hooks $12.5 million Series A led by FirstMark’, TechCruch, 21 April.

[6] Takahashi, D 2020, ‘Genies will let consumers create their own 3D avatars with Giphy and Gucci’, VentureBeat, 20 October.

[7] Kelts, R 2021, ‘Japan’s virtual YouTubers have millions of real subscribers — and make millions of real dollars’, Rest of World, 26 July.

[8] Klein, M 2020, ‘The Problematic Fakery Of Lil Miquela Explained—An Exploration Of Virtual Influencers and Realness’, Forbes, 17 November.

[9] Page, R 2021, ‘ABBA goes high tech’, Information Age, 7 September.

[10] Page, R 2021, ‘ABBA goes high tech’, Information Age, 7 September.