The rise of virtual influencers

Digital twin capability is opening up a new world of influencers to tackle the traditional IRL social individual. We find out more

Ana the virtual influencer
Ana the virtual influencer

One of the questions that has accompanied the rise of social media influencers has been the authenticity of their recommendations. So perhaps it makes sense to do away with any pretence of reality altogether?

Welcome to the world of virtual influencers – computer generated personas such as Lu do Magalu (6 million followers on Instagram), Lil Miquela (3 million followers) and noonoouri (406,000 followers). in some cases, these virtual presences are hard to distinguish from their real-life peers. Gartner predicts that by 2025, 30 per cent of influencer marketing budgets will be allocated to virtual influencers.

What makes this phenomenon interesting is not the that these influencers are not real people – brands have been creating fake personas for marketing purposes for years. The real change here is the power of the software used to create them, and its ability to create humans who, in many instances, can leap the so-called ‘uncanny valley’ that often distinguishes artificial creations from the real thing. Because while many virtual influencers are deliberately styled to be non-human, some, such as Lil Miquela, are hard to distinguish as anything other than real people.

The fact there are so many virtual people online today owes much to the work of North Carolina-based company, Epic Games, maker of online game/virtual world, Fortnite. Epic Games is also the creator of Unreal Engine, which has become an industry standard for high-resolution 3D animation for the games television, and film industries. It’s increasingly being used in industrial design and manufacturing too – as is its tool for creating virtual people, MetaHuman Creator.

Epic’s Singapore-based senior technical account manager, Dean Reinhard, says MetaHuman Creator is free to use for anyone who wants to create their own lifelike digital humans, which unlocks a new world for marketers.

“Anyone can open up MetaHuman Creator and create a digital human quickly and easily that stays within the realms of believability,” Reinhard tells CMO. “It is hard for you to make something that looks wrong.”

The technology is redefining the concept of a digital twin – a term often used to describe an industrial system which is replicated in software, such as a building or machine.

“We often think of digital twins as being of a whole city, but what if I created a digital twin of myself, that I can use to interact with the metaverse or play games?” Reinhard says.

It is use cases like this that lead Reinhard to believe virtual influencers’ IRL counterparts should not fear for their livelihoods just yet.

“As we use realistic and believable [virtual] humans as influencers, I don’t think that really changes much for people, it just opens up different ways that they might be ablet to interact with stuff,” Reinhard says. “You are not losing work because a virtual influencer is taking your place, you are gaining possibilities.”

Among these possibilities is the opportunity for IRL influencers to twin themselves digitally, then augment their digital versions using AI-based translation technology to converse in different languages.

“You can use AI to change things around and make content more appropriate for different audiences that you as a brand or an influencer may not have been able to cater to before,” Reinhard says. “The more we can democratise creativity and empower creators to do this stuff, the better, because it gives us so many different ideas around what can be done in the future.”

These possibilities often involve crossovers between the physical and virtual world. Epic Games has already worked with Italian carmaker, Ferrari, to bring digital versions of its vehicles into Fortnite. Reinhard says this has enabled millions of players to drive a high-definition virtual version of a car they might never afford in real life – and even jump it through the air if they chose to.

“All brands want to be in this space - they want to be in the metaverse,” Reinhard says. “They don’t know what it is yet, but they know they want to be there. How we build experiences for people to enjoy it, rather than just look at an ad - that is the important change for marketers.”

Another emerging use for Epic Games’ technology has been for virtual productions, either shot entirely within the games engine, or by projecting virtual backgrounds onto screens behind real world objects. Reinhard says one benefit is the ability to film on location without needing to visit a location.

“That is expensive and takes planning, and you lose time for rain, and everything else goes wrong,” Reinhard says. “If I can just put people inside an LED stage and film in Fiji today, Iceland tomorrow, and go to the top of the pyramids this afternoon, that opens up a lot.

“I can generate thousands of believable people to put in the background of my footage and play them on the screen. So I can find ways it opens up different creative possibilities for filmmakers, directors, and creatives. We don’t really know where it leads, but it opens up so many possibilities.”

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