At first glance — and even second or third or fourth — Omnipresenz sounds like it belongs in a sci-fi movie, not on a crowdfunding site.
The Spanish start-up, quickly dubbed “The Sims for real life” by many a skeptical media outlet, claims to be working toward a world in which experiencing life in Barcelona or Seoul or Timbuktu is as easy as going online and hooking up with a human “avatar.” But to get to that rosy-eyed point — to “begin to feel that we are one,” as Omnipresenz’s marketing puts it — Omnipresenz will need to raise 33,000 euros, or about $40,601, on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo.
And to do that, it’ll probably have to convince would-be users that it’s not totally creepy, first. (Despite widespread media attention, the project has earned only about $6,500 so far.)
Omnipresenz essentially works like this: Say you’re an adventurous type with some disposable income and an Internet connection, just kicking it at home. If you log onto Omnipresenz and pick a city you want to “visit,” the site will connect you with an “avatar” in that city — an Omnipresenz employee, outfitted with a camera that streams live audio and video, among other things.
The user, from his dashboard, can see everything the avatar sees, where she is in the city, and a list of “nice actions” she’ll perform — for a fee. (Omnipresenz really harps on charitable activities, but users can ask their avatars to do anything as long as it isn’t illegal and won’t hurt anybody.) Meanwhile, the avatar walks around doing the user’s, or users’, bidding, provided they’ve ponied up enough money.
It “may sound like a crazy idea,” says Daniel Gonzalez Franco, the project’s Barcelona-based creator and chief executive. But “I believe that it can be used for positive behaviors among geographically and culturally different humans.”
Franco makes a good spokesman for this kind of project. An artist by training and an optimist by nature (he’s a big fan of the :) and !! in e-mails), Franco doesn’t exactly sound like the type who’d go in for anything sinister or dystopic. Instead, he talks a lot about “empathy.” And “telepresence.” And the building of a global community, connected by GoPros and Google Maps.
“Like you, we are dreamers,” the company’s Indiegogo page explains. “And we have a big dream: To let you have a fun, life-changing experience while making a significant difference in society.”
Unfortunately, all the big dreams in the world can’t exactly explain away the amazing expense and scale of the project — hiring hundreds of “avatars” and outfitting them with live-streaming gear is a titanic task, in and of itself.
More important, there’s the creep factor — which is so wtf-inducingly obvious that it hardly even merits further exploration. To repeat, this is a program in which you explore the “virtual” world by remotely controlling another human. It’s as if someone took every big, 21st-century anxiety about technology — the fear that our screens have diluted “real life,” the omnipresence of cameras and other surveillance technology, the dehumanizing pressure of the Internet-driven, on-demand economy, the vague suspicion that some higher power is watching and/or manipulating us — and put them in a blender. Life imitates games imitating life.
In fact, if you think back on some of the more striking and disturbing dystopic fiction of the past 20 years, much of it circles these exact themes: Virtual/simulated reality is usually deceptive or destructive (think “Total Recall,” “The Matrix,” “Diaspora,” “Ghost in the Shell,” the tubby chair people in Disney’s “Wall-E”), and when people are given technology that lets them control the actions of others, they almost always use it for evil (think everything from “1984” to “Inception” and the Hunger Games’s “Mockingjay”). By all accounts, the upbeat, utopic vision Omnipresenz is pushing is a vision at odds with everything our culture believes about this kind of technology.
But that clash of visions, if you will, is ultimately what makes Omnipresenz so interesting. It is, after all, just a crazy untested idea, at this point — one of many that vie for attention and money on crowdfunding sites every day. But when Omnipresenz asks for your one or three or 300 euro donation, it isn’t just asking you to back an idea or a company: It’s asking you to back a pretty countercultural vision of how technology could work.
“It is true that the idea can be a little bit controversial and [can be] compared to a crazy video game,” Franco explained. “But again, on the contrary, it is about creating connections and awareness, more than having control over each other. That is not our ideal.”
Whether anyone else shares these ideals, of course, remains to be seen. The Omnipresenz Indiegogo campaign ends on Christmas, which means we have three weeks to find out.