The rise of virtual influencers
These humans do not exist and they are ready to steal hearts and influence people
At first glance, Lil Miquela looks like any other Instagram influencer. A young girl sharing her life and travels with 2.6 million followers while hanging out with friends and having a good time. But Lil Miquela is not a real human. You can’t meet in a coffee shop and have a conversation with her. She is a virtual person and is just one of many virtual influencers that emerged in recent years.
A virtual influencer is a digitally created or computer-generated character designed with human-like traits and personalities, used in social media and marketing campaigns to engage with real audiences. These characters can range from realistic to fantastical designs and are often integrated into various platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok, where they post content, interact with users, and promote products or messages just like human influencers.
Thanks to technology getting better and more accessible, creating a virtual influencer has become easier, which gave rise to an entire cohort of virtual models, artists and influencers competing with humans on social media platforms for our attention and connection.
In this article, we will explore this new, futuristic approach to doing a very old thing: stealing hearts and influencing people.
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How to make a virtual human?
Advances in computer graphics, motion capture and the emergence of generative AI have made creating virtual humans easier than ever before.
With Unreal Engine and MetaHuman, it is possible to create digital humans that not only look realistic but also behave realistically in an editor that works similarly to a character creation screen in video games.
The quality of fake humans skyrocketed with the introduction of generative AI tools, like Midjourney, OpenAI’s DALL·E or DeepMind’s Imagen. These text-to-image generators can create pictures of humans that do not exist so well that we cannot tell they were generated by an AI. They are easy to use and accessible. The biggest drawback of generative AI tools is that they are not so good at generating video. However, that is changing and within a year or two we can have tools like Midjourney but generating near-perfect quality videos.
With tools like MetaHuman and text-to-image generators, it is possible to make a virtual human from scratch. 3D artists, animators and prompt engineers have full control over how the virtual influencer will look, from their body type to hair colour to the smallest details.
But 3D modelling and writing prompts in Midjourney are not the only methods for creating a virtual human. Another method involves hiring human performers and then digitally swapping their faces with that of the virtual model. An example of such an influencer is Zaein, one of South Korea's most active virtual humans. Her face is deepfaked onto the body of a group of similarly-sized actors. Zaein sings, reads the news, and sells luxury clothes on TV.
Another example of a deepfaked virtual influencer is Rui. Also hailing from South Korea, Rui is played by a real human and only her face is deepfaked. Rui is part of an agency specialising in virtual humans, which offers four more virtual influencers.
In the case of both Zaein and Rui, only their faces are being swapped. But it is possible to swap the entire body, too. In this approach, the movements of human performers are motion-captured and used to animate the virtual character. A good example of this is CodeMiko, which is getting close to reaching one million followers on Twitch. What’s interesting about CodeMiko is that after an accidental face reveal, the person behind the virtual character became a popular streamer and influencer herself.
CodeMiko is also an example of a VTuber. VTuber, short for “virtual YouTuber”, is an online creator who uses a digital avatar instead of showing their face in livestreams or videos. These digital personas range from realistic to highly stylized, very often inspired by anime, characters and allow the person behind the character to engage with their audience through streaming, video content, and social media platforms while maintaining anonymity or creating a distinct online persona.
The emergence of the virtual humans industry
An entire industry dedicated to creating the most realistic or most engaging or creative virtual humans has emerged in recent years. What these agencies are offering is not just an engaging influencer but also a perfect brand ambassador. The influencer market is steadily growing, going from $1.7 billion in 2016 to $21.1 billion in 2023, and is becoming an important way to not only advertise a product or service but also to influence people to make a purchase. Brands understand how important is for their products or services to be associated with the right people to build the desired image.
However, working with a human influencer comes with potential risks. They may endorse a political view that is not aligned with the brand’s values and image. They may do something controversial which can damage the reputation of the brand. And they might not do everything the brand wants - the influencer might not be comfortable doing some of the requested activities or the scheduling issues could make some activities impossible.
Virtual influences offer to address all those issues. These characters can be moulded into whatever the brand wants from an influencer. The brand has full control over how they look, what they do and what they say. They will never say or do anything controversial and will do everything that is asked of them to do. They promise to be a perfect influencer and brand ambassador. And all of that for a fraction of the cost of hiring a human influencer.
With virtual influencers, media companies and brands can get a perfect employee or a brand ambassador with a specific image and message they have tight control over. That is an attractive offer for brands and some of them tried out this new kind of partnership. In 2018, Noonoouri partnered with Dior to promote their cosmetics. A year later, Samsung featured Lil Miquela in their #TeamGalaxy campaign. In 2020, Imma promoted Ikea and Lenovo in 2022. Other brands such as Coach, Balmain, Balenciaga, Prada, Adidas and Calvin Klein have also worked with virtual influencers.
By partnering with virtual influencers, brands not only build an image of being innovative and forward-thinking but also tap into new demographics and opportunities. According to a survey conducted in 2022, 58% of respondents follow at least one virtual influencer and 35% of consumers said they had purchased a product promoted by a virtual influencer. The most likely to have purchased a product that a virtual influencer promoted were people aged 18-44.
But sometimes, employing the services of virtual models can backfire. In 2023, Levi Strauss learned that the hard way after the company announced a pilot program to use virtual models to supplement human models and increase diversity. The announcement was met with a backlash causing Levi’s to clarify its use of AI to promote diversity a few days later. In 2022, an AI rapper FN Meka made news when Capitol Records signed a contract with him. A month later, Capital Records dropped the AI artists due to FN Meka being built on top of racists and reductive stereotypes.
Other virtual humans are used as news anchors. In 2018, the Chinese news agency Xinhua debuted the world’s first AI news presenter, with plans to introduce more digital replicas of their news anchors in the future. South Korea, India, Greece, Kuwait and Taiwan have also introduced digital news anchors. China’s state-owned news outlet People Daily unveiled in 2023 their new AI presenter, Ren Xiaorong. Xiaorong says she can report the news the whole year, round the clock, without rest. She can also answer questions posted by viewers and her responses are in line with the CCP’s ideology.
But the biggest growing community of virtual influencers is VTubing. VTubing is at the intersection of multiple trends. It mixes growing cultural trends, from the creator economy and livestreaming to anime and K-pop, with advancements in AI, metaverse and motion tracking. VTubing also explores questions about identity and the self in the digital age. And it is massive. According to YouTube Culture & Trends Report 2023, 52% of surveyed people watched a VTuber in 2023 and Streams Charts reports that the VTuber industry received a total of 1.118B Hours Watched throughout 2023. VShojo, a popular VTuber company whose members include Ironmouse, has raised $11 million in 2022. Hololive, a Japanese VTuber talent agency, which includes some of the biggest names in the VTuber, has reported $150.8 million in revenue and around $18.4 million in profit in 2023.
Apart from streaming, modelling or delivering news, virtual humans are also active in music, too. Many of the names mentioned in this article might be familiar only to people who are immersed in the internet culture but I believe the name Gorillaz will be familiar to more people. Created in 1998 as a response to the state of the music industry, Gorillaz went on to become a successful virtual band with hit songs such as Feel Good Inc. or Clint Eastwood.
In 2018, Riot Games released K/DA - a virtual K-pop girl group with members being characters from League of Legends, voiced by real artists. Their first song - POP/STARS - was a massive hit and an internet sensation, gathering over 500 million views on YouTube and over 300 million listens on Spotify.
The massive success of K/DA prompted other K-pop companies to take the virtual group concept more seriously. In 2020, SM Entertainment debuted Aespa, a popular four-girl group where each member had a digital avatar. The idea was that these avatars would join group members in promotions and brand partnerships, and even do promotional activities whenever the real girls could not. However, recently it seems the company has abandoned the concept of digital avatars.
Other attempts at replicating K/DA’s success and riding the metaverse wave were not as successful as K/DA's. In 2021, a virtual group named ETERNITY (later renamed to IITERNITI) debuted with 11 virtual artists, one of whom is Zaein whom we met earlier. The group did not manage to make a big impact on the K-pop scene. MAVE:, however, did manage to have a respectable debut. Debuted in 2023, MAVE: consists of four virtual artists, each generated from scratch using CGI. Their debut song, _PANDORA, reached over 20 million views on YouTube, a respectable number for a debut song from a new group. MAVE: is using AI voice generators to interact with fans but the voices you hear in the song come from human performers.
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Where will the first truly viral virtual influencer come from?
At the moment, virtual influencers are a novelty. However, they have proven to be able to build communities around them and engage with their audience, as shown by millions of people following them. But we haven’t seen yet a breakthrough virtual star influencer, an equivalent of Mr Beast on YouTube or one of the top Twitch streamers. It is a matter of time until someone cracks the code and goes viral.
I think the closest to cracking the code is the VTuber community. The VTubing community has grown massively since its inception in Japan in 2016. The biggest VTuber on YouTube, GawrGura, has almost 4.5 million subscribers. Ironmouse, another popular VTuber, has amassed an audience of almost three million followers across YouTube and Twitch.
The reason I’m highlighting the VTuber community as a possible source of the first viral virtual influencer is that it parallels the emergence of massive YouTube and Twitch creators. The situation reminds me of how the YouTube and Twitch communities looked before creators such as PewDiePie or Ninja exploded and made a jump into the wider public scene. The rise in popularity of VTubers, especially amongst younger audiences, could be a stepping stone towards the wider normalisation and acceptance of virtual influencers which could ultimately lead to the rise of the first viral virtual influencer.
What’s interesting here is that the audience has created a connection with the avatar, not necessarily with the performer. If you replace the person behind the avatar who has the same voice and performs the same way, almost no one in the audience would notice the difference. That raises a question - since the fans connect with the avatar, is the human performer needed? Can the avatar be run by an AI? The answer is not yet. There are AI VTubers, like Neuro-sama that gathered over half a million followers on Twitch, but the technology is not there yet to be as responsive in real-time as a human is. But it is a matter of time before the technology catches up.
A new way to exploit parasocial relationships
There is a concept called 1000 True Fans which says that content creators don’t need millions of followers to sustainably support themselves. All that is needed is 1000 true, dedicated fans who are willing to purchase their products or services directly. If each such fan generates $100 per year, then the creator can make $100,000 per year, which is enough for someone to live comfortably. Now imagine the same scenario but automated and scaled up. There are Chinese influencer content farms that are doing just that but with human influencers. With virtual influencers, it is possible to take this concept to a completely new level. Instead of a one or handful of successful content creators with 1000 true fans, someone could create 1000 distinct virtual influencers, possibly powered by an AI, each targeting a different demographic and niche. Instead of a $100,000 per year business, we are looking at a $100 million per year business.
Ultimately, these virtual models and influencers are made to replace humans. They follow the same rules that influencers discovered, created and perfected over the last 10 years to get their viewers to form a parasocial relationship with them. To care about them, to have an emotional connection with them and to support them through likes, follows and views, as well as by paying subscriptions, donations or purchasing products they promote.
For some, the existence of virtual humans and virtual influencers represents everything that’s wrong with the current world and culture. These characters are meticulously designed and crafted to make a connection and then exploit it to sell something. And the line between the image virtual influencers project and the reality of them being a product for marketing is even thinner than for human influencers. Riot Games learned how thin that line is. In 2020, Riot released Seraphine, the newest champion at that time in League of Legends. Seraphine was also the newest member of K/DA and as a part of the campaign to promote the game, Riot made Seraphine a virtual influencer. Seraphine had her own Instagram and Twitter accounts to act like a young girl whose dreams of becoming a pop star were coming true. But when she started to share posts about mental health and how insecure she felt, the illusion was gone. People started calling out Riot for taking advantage of real-world mental issues and shamelessly farming for engagement. A couple of weeks later, Seraphine stopped updating her accounts as the promotional campaign came to an end.
The technology behind these virtual humans is amazing. It is an impressive mix of generative AI, face-swapping techniques, 3D modelling and motion capture. It allows people who for one reason or another don’t want to show their faces or have to hide their identities to share their passions or to express themselves online. But at the same time, virtual influencers embody the dark side of social media and can take parasocial relationships to a completely new level.
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Humanity Redefined sheds light on the bleeding edge of technology and how advancements in AI, robotics, and biotech can usher in abundance, expand humanity's horizons, and redefine what it means to be human.
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