AI & Robotics

Virtual influencers: Deceptively real and yet surreal

Digital people ... Stop! Excuse me? "Digital people!?" Yes, read that right. Seeing or hearing it sounds alienating, doesn't it? //next author Alexa Brandt didn't feel any different when writing it. Fact is: A digital translation can be found for everything that makes up a person in physical space - in terms of their appearance, movements, voice and other personal characteristics. While we associate the term "digital" with things or objects without much thought, using the word with "human" seems difficult. When "digital" and "human" are used together, we generally do so in a completely different context. We are then talking about the use of digital technology by humans or also about robots as images of human form in the real world.

Yet they have been around for a long time, the digital images that seem almost as real as their models. And they lead a human existence - only in digital space and not in our physical world. We are talking about virtual influencers whose digital existence writes its own life story and where the boundaries between real and fictional become deceptively blurred. This is perhaps why the term "digital character" is often used instead of "digital human being". Because virtual influencers are just as unique as their human models. While such artificially created avatars were originally located in the gaming scene, they are increasingly finding their way into social media marketing. 

What distinguishes virtual influencers?

Basically, virtual influencers are characterised by the following four features:

  1. They are computer-generated (CGI = "Computer Generated Imagery" means images generated by means of 3-D computer graphics).
  2. They resemble human figures.
  3. They have an authentic background story that the intended target group can identify with.
  4. They are designed to influence people's decisions.

The last two aspects are crucial for the fact that there are now companies that use virtual ambassadors to reach their customers on social channels.

Digital people (does that sound a bit more familiar now?) can also be divided into different categories. The agency OSK names these four in a guest article for the Zukunftsinstitut (link in German):

  • Virtual models
  • Brand-independent virtual influencers
  • Virtual brand ambassadors
  • Corporate influencers

The creation of virtual characters requires an interplay of different disciplines - broadly speaking from the fields of big data, design, communication, AI and social media. This also means that behind every created virtual idol there is a series of specialists who consciously develop and control his/her behaviour and appearance. The next step would be for the virtual characters to be trained by artificial intelligence instead of by humans and then interact with the users according to their specifications. 

What is the creation process like?

The first step is to be clear about the purpose for which a virtual influencer is created. Let's take the example of brand ambassadors: Before the creation of a digital personality can begin, two things must be worked out. First, a focus topic that fits the target group and the brand or product and the resulting further thematic combinations. The second step is an in-depth analysis of the target group: What are the different types? What appeals to them (besides content, also visual language, language colour, voice, etc.)? What characteristics do they expect from the virtual personality in order to feel addressed? And what narrative is required for this? A multi-layered and complex process in which machine-controlled analysis techniques are also used.

From all this, it finally emerges what the virtual influencer will look like, how "old" he or she should be, what "personal" background story he or she will get or even what voice suits him or her. The resulting persona can then be further developed without limits - always along the intersection of community and brand or product.

Once these basic things have been clarified, the design is done on the basis of hyper-realistic graphic design software. These programmes, which are used for the creation of virtual figures, are not only those for the procedural synthesis of 3D objects - but also those used in the film industry for the creation of 3D models, textures, computer graphics and animations.

In the actual creation, the designers first create a kind of standard figure without any special features of their own. Then a reference photo is used for the elaborated persona and geometrically aligned - the more accurate this is done, the more realistic the virtual person will look. The next step is to create textures, such as realistic colour tones for skin, eyes, etc. The next step is to use suitable CGI. Then, with the help of suitable CGI tools, posture and surroundings are worked out. And last but not least, lighting effects play a role.  

From "nice to have" to "special

Let's look at a few real-life examples that show how different the results of such robot creation can be.

Sporting goods manufacturer Puma planned to promote its new "Future Rider" line in the Southeast Asian market in 2020 with the help of the virtual influencer Maya. Looking at the Instagram account, it quickly becomes clear that Maya is a fictitiously realised person with a look that is clearly aligned with the target group, but without a distinct narrative. This makes sense, since it was apparently a limited campaign.

A robo-influencer of a completely different kind: Colonel Sanders. The founder of the fast food brand KFC celebrated his comeback as a kind of rejuvenated resurrection in virtual space and was designed as a parody of a typical influencer's life - including cooperations with other brands. The community was enthusiastic.

The virtual influencer Kami is also special - not because she represents people with Down Syndrome, but because she can be seen as an approach to hold up a mirror to the hyper-glamorous and often unrealistic world of influencers in social media - and let the topic of inclusion take place there. However, the assignment does not come from a brand, but from an NPO. Who knows whether companies want to and will discover them for possible cooperations?

And then there was (!) Silver Robo Influencer Silvia, who passed away from her virtual life on 20 November 2020. Even a virtual funeral service was organised for the followers. Her life could be followed in a kind of fast-forward on Instagram from her 30th birthday until her passing in the real time period of May to December 2020.

The list can be extended to include well-known virtual influencers, such as lilmiquela, the first and most successful of her "kind"; imma, a "virtual girl" from Tokyo, who looks deceptively real in most pictures and films and is in no way inferior to real fashion influencers in appearance and demeanour; or Liam Nikuro, who poses in typical influencer style and lets his followers share his everyday life and his story.

Sufficient good reasons for robo influencers

While brands and companies have to look very closely at real influencers and select who fits the target group, this recruitment process is not necessary with virtual figures. This has another advantage at the same time: the image and reputation of a brand will not be tarnished if the brand ambassadors who have signed up engage in harmful or dubious behaviour. Time-consuming journeys to film locations are no longer necessary because the virtual counterpart can be placed anywhere in virtual worlds as often as desired. There is also no longer any need for cost-intensive safeguards for unusual filming locations or moments. And absences for health or personal reasons, which have been known to happen to real people, are also ruled out. The virtual brand ambassadors can be (out-)controlled at any time as one would like and thus reflect trends that might be more difficult to find in a real person. Unlike real influencers, the virtual counterpart thus appears more sustainable and less fragile: they can age with their target group, do not get posing burnout and do not suddenly change life plans. Another aspect that could once again boost the popularity of fake influencers: the topic of metaverse

A respectable substitute for flesh-and-blood influencers?

The question is certainly a little provocative, and yet it has to be asked. Because only time will tell whether the virtual counterparts simply serve escapist desires and fantasies or become a desired alternative in the long run. What my generation - often referred to with negative connotations as the boomers and thus as the eternally outdated - cannot imagine, could become an accepted reality for Gen alpha for various reasons. If we take a closer look, what real influencers convey for companies is usually nothing more than a constructed reality in reality - sometimes more, sometimes less authentic; sometimes with more and sometimes with less image editing. However, many see a danger for the manipulation of young target groups through created rather than real influencers. In any case, the call for an ethical framework for action is getting louder. 

Text: Alexa Brandt