Mugler’s artistic director Casey Cadwallader isn’t one to be afraid of a challenge. The new post COVID19 reality meant Mugler’s new film showcasing the collection starring Bella Hadid, had to be done differently and safely-from a distance. Then the idea came up: “What if we make her into an avatar?” Bella was prepped in a New York studio and styled by Haley Wollens -with Cadwallader monitoring the digitization shoot via Zoom. “Digi-Bella”, Bella’s virtual avatar for Mugler was born.
Digi -Bella isn’t the first: In an era where influencers, or as now called, public opinion leaders, dominate social media, H2R (Human 2-Robot) interaction is evolving at a rapid pace. And while we seem to be years away from actually encountering robots on the streets, social media is the place when virtual influencers are taking center space. Fictional computer-generated people, with realistic human characteristics, features, and personalities to match, are becoming our newest social media friends and influencers.
Some of the most popular virtual influencers such as Lil Miquela and Seraphine Song have already reached well over the million-follower milestone as people all over the world continue to be infatuated with their ‘lives’ Lil Miquela, perhaps the most popular of all, is an avatar operating under a strict code of directions while working with brands and advertisers creating partnerships to promote products or services. Her success has inspired more venture capitalists to invest heavily in virtual creators and progress the technology forward; it’s of no surprise that for Danika Laszuk, general director of Betaworks’ startup boot camp, the future is digital beings that actually are powered. “Avatars and robots are the future. I would very much commission a digital model for a project,” tells us No.3 Media owner Mark Barnard. “Imagine how easier it would become; tiredness and needs would be eliminated. Still, he confesses, I feel there will be no real spark, no personality.”
Still, doesn’t it all feel a bit… weird? “The boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion,” wrote Donna Haraway in her famous 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto.” And while she was talking about ways to use technology to make bodies more livable and society more ethically coherent, it very much feels she is actually talking about Lil Miquela and her friends. The question remains: in a world where personas can be created specifically to be famous, how do human influencers compare? Virtual influencers are programmed and monitored, allowing the owning company total control over their actions. The issue of human influencers acting out of persona and hurting their image and followers is simply eliminated.
When some of the most popular influencers are actually digital beings powered by AI, the questions are mounting. Can a collection of pixels represent anything, while taking a job that could have gone to an underrepresented group? And what is the true representation after all? If a medium has the power to shape the truth, then we have to wonder if anything is actually true at all. Are we dreaming of an idealized future where human difference is resolved not through political struggle but through digital morphing? Are we in fact in a quest for algorithmic sublime ideals? To address those questions, we caught up with industry experts, Ollie Rankin, VR Storyteller and a VFX Supervisor at Pansensory Interactive and Christopher Travers founder of Virtual Humans.
So are virtual influencers the future of fashion and advertising? For Ollie Rankin, they are. “I would instead say that virtual influencers are part of the future of fashion and advertising. It’ll be a while before virtual influencers are able to engage in anything more than superficial conversations, so humans will still have a place. But there are already a number of reasons it makes sense for virtual influencers to become more common. They are very low maintenance and low risk compared to humans. What brand doesn’t want an influencer that’s always awake, never asks for anything, is always on brand, has no skeletons in their closet, and zero risk of quitting or creating bad press?”
Travers is aware that the fashion and advertising industries are in need of value content. “The fashion and advertising industries as flashy industries that depend on glance value, followed by substance, to succeed. Virtual influencers provide that nuanced glance value and, when paired with a captivating story, provide the substance consumers crave out of media experiences. The ability to engage consumers strongly concretes virtual influencers as the perfect pairing for brands. Virtual influencers are the perfect tool for fashion and advertising heads to accomplish their goals.”
Virtual influencers are indeed created perfect. And yet, how does this align with the age of body positivity and acceptance? “That’s a great question and it’s too soon to answer with certainty, says Rankin. “On the one hand, virtual influencers could reinforce ideal body stereotypes and encourage body shaming. But, by being known to be artificial, they could also lead us to finally internalize as a society the fact that the public image of celebrities and influencers isn’t a realistic portrayal of human imperfection. The best case here is that it actually leads to more body positivity and acceptance.”
For Travers, the whole idea is knowing whether an experience is real or ‘created real’. “Virtual influencers are perfectly imperfect. Every decision they make or freckle they have are preconceived for a purpose. I would say that as long as people know whether or not the experiences they consume are fictional or nonfiction, they can derive a proper judgment of their own self-worth in relation to that media or message.” Still, he showcases the dilemma: “Humans derive ideals of self-worth from the fictional storylines out of Hollywood and the non-fiction storylines out of social media influencer culture. The Kardashians built an empire blurring the lines between fiction and non, negatively morphing millions of impressionable humans’ perception of self along the way. Virtual influencers, while fake, are as capable as any human at promoting body positivity and acceptance—it all comes down to the message they try to send and the story they tell.”
And this is an important question to ask. Are AI and VR technology actually blurring the line between what is ‘real’ and what is not? Definitely, says Rankin. “And we’re only just at the beginning. Deep fake and related AI approaches to creating images and video are becoming closer and closer to reality every day. At the moment the computational demands of AI and VR are too high for current consumer hardware to create a virtual reality that is indistinguishable from the real reality. Frame rate/latency and resolution/fidelity are the barriers right now, but the hardware and software continue to improve, almost exponentially. When AI is able to create real-time photoreal spatial recreations of reality in VR, it will finally be possible to fool all the people all the time.”
Christopher Travers also believes there has to be a solid distinction of those worlds. “There’s the real world, then there’s the digital world, which is a construct existing inside of the real world. The digital world is growing thanks to the onset of stereos, televisions, phones, computers, and now smartwatches/AR glasses. These devices are literal windows to digital consumption. When we open those windows, we create a new connection between the digital world and the real world. When we power down a device, we close a window. The line between what is real and what is not existing at and only at, these windows. It’s up to you to recognize that everything you consume in the digital world is idealized and constructed, just like the digital world itself. Today, the line between what is real and what is not is simply numb.”