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At Walmart, Sam Walton’s hologram hints at Black Friday’s future

A slew of dead founders, patriarchs and presidents mingling among us is suggested in the company’s hometown

A hologram of Walmart founder Sam Walton holds court in front of a room in Bentonville, Ark., right before Thanksgiving. The piece comes at the head of a new wave of lifelike recreations of dead icons. (Steven Zeitchik)

It was just a couple days before Black Friday, and a group of visitors to a Walmart museum had some questions for Sam Walton.

“I’d like to share some thoughts with you face to face,” the founder of the country’s largest retailer told them from the front of the Bentonville, Ark., space, standing up from his bar stool in anticipation of the task.

The actual Sam Walton died in 1992, gone to meet the celestial greeters at aisle five in the sky. But a cutting-edge technology that combines elements of AI and the metaverse is bringing him back — a full-size, lifelike hologram that moves, interacts and, most of all, reacts conversationally as he spins his folk wisdom to anyone who asks.

Dressed in beige sports coat, red tie and Walmart hat, Walton looked serious as someone asked him what he’d tell customers packing into stores on Black Friday hellbent on basket-type air fryers and deep-discounted Xboxes.

“It’s very important to smile at a customer, look them in the eye and greet them,” he said. “Those customers are the reason for our being,” he added, his mild manner turning a little zealous. “Don’t y’all realize that?”

Sam Walton won’t be at any stores this Black Friday. But earlier this month, Walmart quietly unveiled the first of what is internally known as Mister Sam the Hologram, placing it at its museum a mile from its corporate headquarters in Bentonville, The Washington Post has learned.

For Walmart, Mister Sam is an attempt both to elevate a cult of personality and bolster its tech reputation in the face of holiday-shopping competition from Amazon. The hologram is an example of how longtime traditional retailers are experimenting technologically to keep up with their competitors who started in the digital world (Amazon was founded by Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.)

Yet the project has implications beyond retail. AI Sam Walton hints at a new frontier, one in which long-dead icons mingle among us, head-spinningly erasing the line between not just virtual and real but present and past, dead and alive.

The hologram is the result of a partnership between two start-ups. One, the Los Angeles-based Storyfile, records testimony and creates AI-driven responses from it. The other, Proto, also in L.A., displays life-size volumetric holograms inside a large box with a new degree of persuasiveness. Together they’re embarking on a “resurrection,” as Storyfile allows the real-time conversations with dead people while Proto enables their real-seeming presentation.

“This is about as real as it gets,” Alan Dranow, senior director of the Walmart Heritage Group, said in an interview as he stood next to the Mister Sam character. “People who knew Sam get the quivering chin. They get misty-eyed because of how realistic it is.”

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The retailer could eventually use the hologram in employee training or even as greeters. After all, the AI hologram serves the same function — a welcoming presence that draws from a wide range of responses. (Versions of this are also being tried at airports via “digital concierges” and with a Storyfile initiative in which a “virtual human” answers customer questions at a bank.)

Dranow acknowledged such uses were technically feasible but pushed back at the idea that Walmart would deploy it in a widespread consumer manner — for now, anyway.

The Post was given an exclusive demo of the technology by Zooming in to an early presentation to visitors at the Bentonville museum.

During much of the session, Walton reminisced wistfully in the manner of any bar stool companion, talking about decades-old pie-eating contests and his beloved English setter Ol’ Roy, who gave his name to the popular dog-food brand. He also led the room in a “Walmart cheer,” which involved him calling out the company’s letters, including a middle “squiggly,” like at a high school pep rally.

But the wrinkles were also apparent.

A question about the company’s stock price led to an answer that suggested Mister Sam thought he was being asked to take stock of his career. And he offered his deflective auto-response to several inquiries 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 going to get in trouble for that,” said one visitor, then stopped upon appearing to realize holograms can’t get in trouble.

For Storyfile, Mister Sam grows out of its roots as an archival company that has collected and fed into an AI scores of testimony from Holocaust survivors and Japanese internment-camp victims. Its co-founder, Stephen Smith, spent 12 years as executive director of USC’s Shoah Foundation.

“To me what AI can do, in all of these cases, is serve as a kind of keeper of the historical memory — it makes sure something stays alive, whether it’s a corporate culture or someone’s experience of a terrible historical event.”

“When could you ever understand what someone’s life was about like" you can now?” said Heather Maio-Smith, another Storyfile co-founder.

Mister Sam is not “generative” — that is, the AI is simply matching the question to an answer once given by the subject. Storyfile does have a project with at least one famous 20th-century figure Smith declined to identify that generates an original response that the person would have said — a whole other quagmire since it means a person’s legacy can be shaped posthumously by a machine. Smith acknowledged there were ethical issues still to be worked out.

The Walton hologram is also part of a larger vision from Proto, which aims for a kind of democratization of the form.

Some of its uses involve living famous people dropping into places they couldn’t visit — a hallway hologram at a movie theater so an actor can chat with filmgoers about a role they just watched, or a politician who can digitally converse at a dozen small-town diners at the same time. Where the metaverse would require a person to enter a wholly virtual world, Proto flips things by bringing the virtual into the real world.

Over several funding rounds beginning in late 2020, Proto has raised $23 million from the likes of Sean Combs, Albert Pujols and venture-capitalist Tim Draper, who are invested in the idea that people not here should be presented as though they are. Proto executives use the word “resurrection” non-spiritually; they see these holograms as simply a coding fix to the bug of mortality.

“We would like to put people on a hologram hard drive and have them on it for all eternity,” said Noah Rothstein, who as director of global deployment for Proto travels the world setting up hologram systems. “Why should my great-grandkids not get to ask their great-grandfather questions they could never otherwise get to ask?”

Such efforts aren’t cheap. While a smaller desktop kit will be priced at about $3,000 for a planned retail release next year, the full-size setup of the kind at Walmart can run up to $100,000. Legal questions also persist. Some people, Rothstein said, have already begun to insert clauses in their will that prevent their hologramization after death.

The most direct — some might say creepy — application Proto has been developing is for people who have requested “tombstone holograms.” Come stand at a headstone contemplating a late person’s life — and then watch them pop up to tell you all about it.

“I think what Proto is doing is a wonderful example of the art of the possible,” said Daniel Smalley, a professor at Brigham Young University and an expert on holograms. He said that while the AI Sam Walton didn’t use highly expensive technology that might make the image more convincing from all angles, “this gets us 90 percent of the way there.”

He was unsure, however, of the implications of resurrection uses. “Does this make it easier to get over someone? Or just prolong the grieving process?”

Back at the Walmart museum, visitors were trying to work through their thoughts on the manlike figure in front of them.

Questions for Walton ranged from those about his father’s deal-making flair (“he traded his wristwatch for a hog”) to the keys to successful entrepreneurship (“Swim upstream”).

A more philosophical query entered the conversation.

“How do you feel about being a hologram?” one person asked.

“I’m not sure,” he replied.

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