WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Today we are used to the majority of our influencers, and contacts, being human, but as we progress into the future more of the encounters we have will be with virtual entities, in the form of avatars, bots and virtual vloggers like these.
It doesn’t get much more bizarre than this, and remember, the year is still 2018. In mid-April, a Trump supporting Instagram influencer named Bermuda hacked the account of fellow influencer Lil Miquela, who has over a million followers. But wait, no, there’s more dear reader… Bermuda refused to return the account unless Miquela promised to “tell the world the truth,” the “truth” being that Miquela is not a human being. And in case you haven’t caught on yet, neither is Bermuda. Both are CGI creations, virtual humans, who are now increasingly being referred to as “virtual influencers.” Confused? Well, let me enlighten you, come with me as we take a journey down the rabbit hole that we call the future.
Lil Miquela has been a source of fascination for many on Instagram since not long after her account launched in April 2016, but for her first two years of existence, no one could definitively say who or what was behind the operation. The Bermuda hack-slash-PR-stunt solved at least part of the mystery, linking Miquela to Brud, a Los Angeles based startup that specializes in “robotics, artificial intelligence and their applications to media businesses,” but the entire saga remains a master class in postmodern performance art, with Miquela announcing that she was “no longer working with [her] managers at Brud.”
For those who are curious about the nitty-gritty, The Cut has a good account of exactly how the hack and subsequent “reveals” played out.
Like much of the reality TV theatre we’re exposed to nowadays it’s likely that the entire charade will continue on for some time, if not indefinitely, and it’s also possible that the exact operation behind Lil Miquela’s account may never become clear.
What is clear, however, is Miquela’s social following and influence, and the fact that when it comes to confusing encounters with new, increasingly hyper-realistic CGI humans, who are no longer just restricted to Instagram but are also starting to break out into the world of customer service with new bots and avatars like Ava from New Zealand based Soul Machines, she’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Miquela isn’t just a flashy stunt though, she has serious money making potential. Already, the virtual influencer has partnered with Giphy and Prada and “posed” wearing Diesel and Moncler. In February, Miquela said she had never been paid to model a piece of fashion on her feed, but that could change at any moment. Lil Miquela’s PR representatives did not respond to queries about whether she has posted any sponsored content since that statement though…
The demand from brands is certainly there. Just look at what happened to Shudu, a CGI “supermodel” created by fashion photographer Cameron-James Wilson. Her account went viral when Fenty Beauty reposted a “photo” of Shudu “wearing” the brand’s Mattemoiselle lipstick; since then, Wilson says, he’s gotten offers from a bounty of brands in the fashion and tech worlds, all hoping to work with the CGI model.
But virtual models and influencers like Lil Miquela and Shudu raise thorny questions. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) updated its endorsement guides to require influencers to disclose their marketing relationships and identify paid posts with a hashtag like #ad or #sponsored—but it’s not clear how those rules would apply to influencers who aren’t human, and whose backers, like Lil Miquela’s, are shrouding themselves in mystery.
“If this influencer doesn’t disclose that a post is paid for, who is the FTC going to go after?” asks Adam Rivietz, cofounder and CSO of the influencer marketing company #paid.
Beyond that, Rivietz says, virtual influencers like Lil Miquela raise other concerns. After all, why should followers trust the opinion of someone who doesn’t exist?
“Virtual influencers aren’t trying on a clothing brand,” Rivietz points out, “they can’t tell you, ‘This shirt is softer than another and that’s one of the reasons you should buy it.’ They’re not real people, so they can’t give a totally authentic endorsement.” But then again, according to Ryan Detert, CEO of the influencer marketplace Influential, those are the very traits that make virtual influencers so attractive to companies because “they’re much easier to control.”
In the near future, Rivietz thinks, many companies may begin building their own digital influencers, simply because it’s a more efficient way of controlling the message that reaches their target audiences. Human influencers, too, might begin embracing CGI alter egos to protect their relationships with their existing sponsors.
“They could make a duplicate version where it’s like, ‘This is my real-life feed where I post certain things, but then here’s my avatar of myself where maybe I work with different brands or do more risqué things,’” says Rivietz.
Wilson, the creator of Shudu, suspects that digital doppelgangers will extend beyond even the world of influencers, and sees Shudu in part as a way of acclimating a mainstream audience to the idea of digital humans
“I think it’s only natural that we will have avatars of ourselves eventually, or characters,” he says. “The reason I want to get people into it now is because that is going to explode.”
As you’d expect there are already a number of startups working on commercial applications for what they call “digital” or “virtual” humans like Soul Machines that I mentioned above who’s already partnered with companies as diverse as Daimler and Nationwide Bank in the UK. Meanwhile others, like 8i and Quantum Capture, are also working on creating digital humans for virtual, augmented, and mixed reality applications.
And those startups’ technologies, though still in their early stages, make Lil Miquela and her cohort look positively low-res.
“[Lil Miquela] is just scratching the surface of what these virtual humans can do and can be,” says Quantum Capture CEO and president Morgan Young, “it’s pre-rendered, computer generated snapshots, images that look great, but that’s about as far as it’s going to go, as far as I can tell, with their tech. We’re concentrating on a high level of visual quality and also on making these characters come to life.”
Quantum Capture is focused on Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), but the Toronto based company is also aware that those might see relatively slow adoption, and so it’s currently leveraging its 3D scanning and motion capture technologies for real world applications today.
The startup is currently piloting one use case for a luxury hotel, where a “virtual human” concierge greets guests in the lobby via a touch screen or kiosk and helps them check in; guests can then access that same virtual human concierge from their rooms and ask for anything from restaurant recommendations to help adjusting the lighting or opening the curtains.
See the concierge in action
Down the line, Quantum Capture’s Young thinks that, just as it might become commonplace for Instagram influencers to have CGI alter egos, celebrities may start creating digital doubles
“There’s a really interesting revenue model built around that, wherein you might not get access to the talent themselves, but you might get access to their digital avatar, and the actual human being will make money off of the use of their avatar,” says Young.
If that latter sort of use case sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly the plot of the 2013 movie The Congress, in which Robin Wright, playing herself, agrees to sell off the film rights to her digital image. In that movie, things go predictably and dystopically wrong and indeed, Young says he doesn’t see 3D scanned celebrity doppelgangers taking off until questions around rights management can be firmly locked down. But it’s not hard to see a dystopian tinge even in today’s rising ranks of virtual humans.
Lil Miquela commands a following of 1.1 million followers, more than double the number she boasted in December, and though the influencer has used her power for good, encouraging her followers, who are known as “Miquelites,” to donate to Black Girls Code and be better allies to transgender people, it’s not hard to imagine another CGI account using its influence to spread hate or political discord.
As a result it’s easy to eye roll at a headline about two feuding CGI celebs but they won’t be the last, they’ll be the first of millions, and their successors won’t be as easy to spot as they are today. Welcome to the rabbit hole.