The real Sam Walton died in 1992, having gone to meet the celestial hosts at aisle five in the sky.
But cutting-edge technology that combines elements of AI and the Metaverse brings it back — a life-size, realistic hologram that moves, interacts, and most importantly, responds conversationally as it imparts its folk wisdom to anyone who asks.
Dressed in a tan sports coat, red tie and Walmart hat, Walton looked serious when someone asked him what he would say to customers packing in stores on Black Friday, determined to hunt down basket-style air fryers and discount Xboxes.
“It’s very important to smile at a customer, look them in the eye and greet them,” he said. “These customers are our reason for being,” he added, his sweetness turning a little zealous. “Don’t you realize that?”
Sam Walton will not be in any store this Black Friday. But earlier this month, Walmart quietly unveiled the first of what is known internally as Mister Sam the hologram, placing it in its museum a mile from its headquarters in Bentonville, the Washington learned. Post.
For Walmart, Mister Sam is an attempt to both elevate a cult of personality and bolster its tech reputation in the face of competition from Amazon’s holiday shopping. The hologram is a bold example of how traditional retailers have long experimented with technology to keep up with competitors who started out in the digital world (Amazon was founded by Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.)
Yet the project also has implications beyond retail. AI Sam Walton hints at a new frontier in which long-dead icons mingle with us, blurring the line between not just virtual and real, but also present and past, dead and living.
The hologram is the result of a partnership between two start-ups. One, the Los Angeles-based Storyfile, records testimonials and creates AI-based responses from them. The other, Proto, also in Los Angeles, displays life-size volumetric holograms inside a large box with a new degree of persuasion. Together they embark on a “resurrection,” as Storyfile allows real-time conversations with deceased people while Proto allows their apparent presentation.
“It’s about as real as it gets,” Walmart Heritage Group senior manager Alan Dranow said in an interview as he stood next to the character of Mister Sam. trembling chin. They have misty eyes because of how realistic it is.
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The retailer could possibly use the hologram in employee training or even as a host; after all, the AI hologram serves the same function – a welcoming presence that draws on a wide range of responses. Versions of this are being tested at airports through “digital concierges” and with a Storyfile initiative in which a “virtual human” answers customer questions at a bank.
Dranow acknowledged that such uses were technically feasible, but pushed back against the idea that Walmart would roll it out widely to consumers — for now, anyway.
The Post received an exclusive demonstration of the technology zooming in on an early presentation to visitors to the Bentonville museum.
For much of the session, Walton was nostalgically reminisced, like any bar stool mate, talking about decades-old pie contests and his beloved English setter Ol’ Roy, who gave its name to the famous dog food brand. He also led the room in a “Walmart cheer,” which led him to call out the company’s letters, including a “wavy” middle, like at a high school pep rally.
But the wrinkles were also apparent.
A question about the company’s share price led to a response suggesting Mister Sam thought he was being asked for a career update. And he offered his deviant automatic response to several requests whose answers seemed easily retrieved.
“When did you and Miss Helen get married?” someone asked, referring to his longtime wife.
“I’m not sure,” he said.
“Hoo boy, he’s gonna get in trouble for this,” a visitor said, then paused on appearing to realize that holograms can’t get in trouble.
For Storyfile, Mister Sam grew out of its roots as an archival company that collected and integrated into an AI dozens of testimonies from Holocaust survivors and victims of Japanese internment camps. Its co-founder, Stephen Smith, spent 12 years as executive director of USC’s Shoah Foundation.
“For me, what AI can do, in all of these cases, is serve as a keeper of historical memory – it makes sure that something stays alive, whether it’s a culture of undertaking or the experience of a terrible historical event.”
“When have you ever been able to understand what life was like for someone like that?” said Heather Maio-Smith, another Storyfile co-founder.
Mister Sam is not “generative” – that is, the AI simply matches the question to an answer once given by the subject. But Storyfile has a project with at least one famous 20th century character that Smith refused to identify that generates an original response that the person would have have said – a whole different quagmire since it means a person’s legacy can be posthumously shaped by a machine. Smith acknowledged that there were still ethical issues to be resolved.
Walton’s hologram is also part of a larger vision of Portal, which aims for a kind of democratization of form.
Some of its uses involve living famous people going to places they couldn’t visit – a hallway hologram in a movie theater for an actor to chat with viewers about a role they’re coming from to watch ; or a politician who can converse digitally in a dozen small-town restaurants at the same time. Where the Metaverse would require a person to enter an entirely virtual world, Proto turns things around by bringing the virtual into the real world.
In multiple funding rounds beginning in late 2020, Proto raised $23 million from Sean Combs, Albert Pujols and venture capitalist Tim Draper, who are invested in the idea that people who aren’t here should be presented as if they are. Proto rulers use the word “resurrection” non-spiritually. They see these holograms as a simple coding solution to the mortality bug.
“We’d like to put people on a hologram hard drive and have them there for all eternity,” said Noah Rothstein, who as Proto’s Global Deployment Manager travels the world setting up systems for holograms. “Why couldn’t my great-grandchildren ask their great-grandfather questions that they could never ask otherwise?”
Such efforts do not come cheap. While a smaller desktop kit will cost around $3,000 for an expected retail release next year, a full-size setup like this at Walmart can cost upwards of $100,000. Legal issues also persist. Some people, Rothstein said, have already started inserting clauses into their wills that prevent them from being hologramized after death.
The most straightforward – some might say scary – app that Proto has developed is for people who have requested “tombstone holograms”. Come and stand in front of a tombstone contemplating the life of a deceased person – then watch it appear to tell you about it.
“I think what Proto is doing is a wonderful example of the art of the possible,” said Daniel Smalley, a Brigham Young University professor and hologram expert. He said that while AI Sam Walton didn’t use very expensive technology that could make the image more compelling from all angles, “it gets us 90% of the way there.”
He was, however, unsure of the implications of the uses of the resurrection. “Does it make it easier to forget someone? Or just prolong the grieving process?
Back at the Walmart museum, visitors were trying to think about the human figure in front of them.
The questions Walton was asked ranged from those about his father (“He liked to make a deal for just about anything – he traded his wristwatch for a pig”) to keys to successful entrepreneurship (“Swimming in upstream”).
A more philosophical question entered the conversation.
“How do you feel about being a hologram?” one person asked.
“I’m not sure,” he replied.
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