Life, unscripted

Anyone who’s turned on a television in the last couple of decades surely knows that an incredible amount of our entertainment these days is “unscripted” – so-called “reality” TV. We humans enjoy peeking inside the lives of others. And even while we know it’s carefully curated, reality television still feeds the voyeuristic tendencies hard-wired into our brains. Of course, this pays off for the content creators, who can sell advertising against content that sates our curiosity about what goes on in other people’s lives.

With the advent of social media, this same dynamic has increasingly ruled our day-to-day social lives, driving the same voyeuristic impulse into how we view our friends, family and strangers alike. Celebrities and influencers are able to use social media as a broadcast medium quite analogous to reality TV, and in many cases blurring the lines completely. And with social media platforms aggregating our attention for advertisers, the content creators get paid here too.

On the flip side, we who all use social media to create a sense of community are encouraged to be as performative as possible so as to be similarly interesting to the largest number of people, until we’re all keeping up with the Joneses online. Whether this dynamic is harmful to our society (it is) would be a subject for a different article – let’s just stipulate it as an observation here.

Imaginary friends

These impulses are all indulged and consumed via digital platforms. Even for those we know best, the majority of our interactions might take place online. And plenty of the people who fill our social media feeds we may have never met in person, nor would we particularly expect to.

Our reliance on the digital was never greater than during the pandemic, when the world largely shut down and online communication was all we had left of our social groups. Zoom calls, Slack messages, and virtual events replaced our day-to-day interactions, which could no longer be face-to-face. Suddenly even our last bastions of in-person engagement were forced onto digital platforms.

In important ways, such interactions aren’t “real.” The human brain reacts differently to people in the flesh, making real eye contact. Maybe you had a Zoom call with your boss this morning, but that wasn’t really her – it was just a digital representation of her. That photo of your best friend on vacation? The video of that influencer showing off a new mascara? Digital artifacts only.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

So what becomes of our relationships when they are only made up of digital artifacts? Does it leave room for us to question whether there’s really someone on the other side? Sure, you know that your best friend and your boss really exist. But what about that influencer or that celebrity you follow? Or the strangers in your friends’ photos? It’s already been years since we’ve had AI that could create realistic photos of fictional people – maybe some of them have already appeared in your social feeds.

If you can invent a face from an AI algorithm, and clearly we have things like functional chatbots, it should be no surprise that these techniques can be combined into a sort of virtual human. Admittedly, there’s probably not much incentive for your friends to photoshop fictional people into their vacation photos. But there are plenty of actors online who are motivated to try creative virtual humans, especially given the money that can potentially be made in the attention economy (not to mention the regular economy.) Motives might run the gamut – from outright scammers looking to take advantage of the naive to forward-thinking legitimate brands seeking to create just the right persona for a pitchman.

Virtual humans can be designed and built and from them created all the same digital artifacts that make up our own lives online. If this all sounds fanciful, then you might be surprised to learn that this imagined future is already here. The tools exist to create such virtual humans, and indeed have for several years. And they are getting better and more powerful all the time.

From digital selves to virtual humans

Yes, virtual humans already exist, and some are designed to mimic human conversation and mannerisms, often to create an emotional connection for online interaction. Sometimes they are avatars based on real people, but they can also be made-to-order fictional creations and they’ve been deployed in operational roles such as sales, healthcare, finance, and customer support. We’re still figuring out just how far we can take the concept, with virtual characters being used as social media influencers and brand ambassadors with their own backstories.

Of course online digital characters are not new. They’ve been around in the gaming world for decades. But in those types of incarnations, they don’t claim to be anything other than fictional characters who share some traits with humans. Some of the newer experiments into what virtual humans can be, on the other hand, are pushing the boundaries of digital life and what it means to be an online persona.

Take, for example, the case of Lil Miquela, created by the media company Brud, which says it is “creating community-owned media and collectively-built worlds.” Back in 2018, she had her first influencer incident in which another virtual human named Bermuda (also made by Brud) “hacked” her account. In a move to set her out on her own and distance herself from her creators, Lil Miquela said she “split from her managers,” playing into the narrative that Brud makes virtual humans “real” but it’s their followers that make them “matter.”

Now, with 3 million followers, she refers to herself as a “19-year-old Robot living in LA,” and while her fans know very well that she’s not a real person, they nevertheless comment and vote on her next actions. Lil Miquela even shared her “emotions” surrounding the revelation that she was just a robot (in the most general sense of the word). And while she’s supposedly “forever 19,” she recently shared a photo of herself as a baby, adding texture to her backstory. Of course, all. of this is carefully scripted and curated to be provocative – the sensationalized aspects are reminiscent of reality television at its most ridiculous.

Bridging the uncanny valley

As robotic technology developed in the 1970s, a Japanese prosthetics researcher named Masahiro Mori coined the phrase Bukimi-no-Tani, which translated into English as “Uncanny Valley.” He noticed that as robots went from boxy and metallic to more humanoid in aesthetics, people tended to feel more comfortable around them – but only up to a point. The uncanny valley is where digital avatars become too lifelike, but not quite believable enough, which tends to cause a deep sense of unease, and even fear.

Today’s virtual humans evoke the uncanny valley phenomenon for many. And that’s probably what their creators are going for. They want their audience to be in on the joke – it’s part of the appeal. But we’ve already seen digital character animation in moviemaking that comes very close to passing for human, or in some cases passes the test. It’s only a matter of time before the technology improves enough to be viable at a scale and cost for online virtual human personas.

Lil Miquela’s snapshots are the result of pre-rendered CGI technology, but that’s just the starting point for other companies trying to make their digital humans look and move as realistically as possible. Some of tomorrow’s creators will surely want the facial expressions and mannerisms that don’t leave people asking if their influencer or customer service agent is real or not. Already, programs like Metahuman Creator are pushing the boundaries of what a single talented artist (much less a team of talented artists) is able to accomplish, and making such technology available to a broad audience.

It remains to be seen how humans will react to a virtual “species” that’s suitably human, but we’re likely to find out in the next decade as we traverse the uncanny valley and begin to see more believable virtual humans. True, issues might arise when those virtual humans are mistaken for real ones because they’ve been given enough human attributes to be largely indistinguishable from a real person. But believable virtual brand ambassadors might be the least concerning use of such technology, to be honest.

Employing virtual characters

Perhaps a digital influencer can be just successful as a human one. By the time Lil Miquela was nearing 1 million followers back in 2018, brands started to take notice. There is still some occasional branded content like the casual donning of a Supreme shirt or attempt to buy White Claw. She has partnered with Prada and Giphy when they set out to add branded gifs to Instagram stories (and she’s given shout-outs to Prada in posts), and she’s been called a “trendy CGI-generated It girl” by none other than Vogue. Brud has never revealed whether brands sponsored such content. But she’s also posed in Diesel and Moncler, among other brands, and has done a paid partnership with MINI.

Digital humans are undoubtedly hard at work in the fashion industry, and these creations have touched nearly every corner of high-end markets. DiorMarc Jacobs, and Versace have all worked with Opium Effect’s influencer Noonoouri, who has over 370k followers on Instagram. Skincare brand SK-II had its own digital influencer named Yumi created by AI company SoulMachines in 2019. Renault built “Liv” to be a “virtual ambassador” for their Kadjar SUV. Balmain created their own CGI avatars (Margo and Xhi, joined by “The World’s First Digital Supermodel” Shudu) for their pre-Fall 2018 campaign. Ralph & Russo used a virtual model called Hauli to showcase their Fall/Winter 2020 collection during COVID. And Balenciaga has a team of virtual models (as well as their very own metaverse).

Some luxury brands have worked with “independent” (if there is such a thing) virtual models, such as Porsche partnering with Aww, Inc.’s Japanese model Imma for the release of its “Taycan” electric vehicle. Ikea has partnered with Imma as well. At the other end of the spectrum, KFC created a Colonel Sanders avatar that seemed to mock the entire trend (while still advertising their products).

Truth in advertising

It’s clear that virtual influencers are already making an impact in our virtual and physical worlds, and their presence on social media does raise some issues. For example, they were likely influential when it came time to regulate paid ads on Instagram. Shudu, specifically, raised eyebrows when beauty company Fenty reshared a photo of her donning their lipstick. It wasn’t long before the Federal Trade Commission had one more reason to update their endorsement guidelines in 2018.

In their explanation they said “The Guides, at their core, reflect the basic truth-in-advertising principle that endorsements must be honest and not misleading. An endorsement must reflect the honest opinion of the endorser and can’t be used to make a claim that the product’s marketer couldn’t legally make.” Influencers real and digital had to identify paid posts with hashtags. But it left loopholes. Whose “honest opinion” does an influencer represent?

Even an update for social media influencers in 2019 stated that “You can’t talk about your experience with a product you haven’t tried.” But how exactly does a virtual influencer try a product? Is the onus on the creator behind them? The agency running the social media account? The brand itself? Should we really expect any kind of objectivity here?

Of course, a virtual human can’t really tell anyone whether products are worthwhile – they can’t claim to have actually “used” the product. That raises questions about what an “endorsement” really means. Then again, brands from M&Ms to GEICO have long used fictional characters in advertising. So perhaps endorsements by virtual humans are basically the same.

Our digital world

In the digital world that we’ve created for ourselves, virtual humans might find themselves more at home than we are. They will easily adopt all of our technologies, and we’re seeing this already.

Gaming is an obvious synergy (perhaps it started the trend.) Video game characters come with their own pre-existing audience. So it’s not surprising that they have been enlisted as digital models. Most notable is Lightening, the protagonist from Final Fantasy XIII, which has been used by the likes of Louis Vuitton (back in 2016) and Chanel (which has enlisted Lil Miquela in the past as well). LV’s Nicolas Ghesquière also designed in-game skins for League of Legends Champions Senna and Qiyana, so the digital has extended to fashion as well as models, creating a direct-to-avatar economy of sorts.

Holography is another technology to keep our eyes on when it comes to virtual humans. It’s an interesting way to bring digital humans “to life,” releasing them from a solely virtual world. At the 2019 BAFTA’s Shudu was introduced as “the world’s first 5G-powered AI stylist” and appeared as a “hologram” dressed in outfits similar to the celebrities attending. The items she wore were linked to shopping experiences and styling tips for fans via Instagram Stories. Fans could also swipe up on those Stories to begin a styling conversation with the Shudu chatbot platform which would help them find more affordable options in order to “Shop the Look.” Just image the impact a life-sized hologram of a virtual influencer could have.

The age of post-human advertising

Creating an entirely believable virtual human is still a ways off. But we’ve already created enough digital character traits to test the waters and see where we’re headed. Brands may have some decisions to make about innovation vs authenticity. But it’s clear that there will be room in the marketplace for success on both sides of that decision.

It remains to be seen exactly how customers will react to these sophisticated characters, especially if they truly are nearly indistinguishable from humans. It’s unlikely that policy will catch up to technology in this area in order to govern its development. So as in most cases of emerging technologies, it will be up to brands to regulate themselves. And up to consumers to keep their eyes wide open.

But there’s reason to believe that consumers will welcome their new virtual brethren, as we’ve welcomed innovations past. The brand possibilities are endless in a post-human world. Virtual humans can do anything you want them to do and they’re not constrained by human limitations. But what we actually decide to do with them will likely teach us more about humanity than anything else.

Featured Image: Baauer / YouTube