The Rise of CGI Influencers and Digital Humans

August 1, 2018

Let me introduce you to Lil Miquela: The stylish, 19-year-old model from Downey, Calif., leads an enviable, carefree lifestyle — skateboarding with friends, visiting New York for fashion shoots and attending the Coachella music festival, among other fun activities.

With her 1.2 million Instagram followers, Lil Miquela has become an influencer, working for brands such as Prada, Diesel and Moncler.
But as Lil Miquela’s fans learned in April (and as other people had previously suspected), she is not real. She’s a CGI — computer-generated image — created by a Los Angeles-based computer-software firm. (Wired magazine described the revelation as “postmodern performance art.”)

Lil Miquela is a high-profile example of the emerging phenomena of CGI influencers and their close cousin, the “digital human.” 

“CBS This Morning” recently reported that computer-generated social media influencers are projected to become a $2 billion industry by the year 2020. CGI creations such as Lil Miquela have the potential to become big-name influencers that one day might rival sponsored posts by a real-life Kardashian or Jenner.

After one of my recent futurism talks — where I spoke about digital humans — a rep from a big brand asked whether brands should look into creating their own CGI influencers. My answer was “yes.”

In the future, companies will be able to design their own influencers who personify their brands. However, it will only work if the CGI influencer has an authentic connection to the brand and is closely aligned with its supporters.

A call for transparency

In June, TIME magazine named Lil Miquela one of the “25 Most Influential People on the Internet.”

But the use of CGI influencers has raised questions about transparency. Jennifer Grygiel, a social media professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, recently told CNN that it’s not obvious Lil Miquela is computer generated, calling the concept of digital characters who appear nearly lifelike “deeply problematic.”

David Polgar, an attorney who studies the ethics of technology, told CBS News that the Federal Trade Commission needs to establish guidelines for CGI characters. With technology outpacing the law, “We are blurring the lines between fiction and reality,” Polgar said. The onus “is on the legislative branch to say, ‘Maybe we need better transparency.’”

A look at digital humans

I’m also interested in what companies like Toronto’s Quantum Capture are doing in the digital-human space.

During a recent visit to Toronto, I watched a demonstration from Quantum Capture’s team in which I interacted with an ultra-high-fidelity virtual human. His name is Sean, a volumetric scan of a real-life actor powered by artificial intelligence and voiced by a Quantum Capture employee.

Sean is already serving as a hotel concierge in Canada, and I suspect we’ll see him in the United States soon.

One of my favorite examples of where the technology is headed is “Siren,” a rendering of a digital-human woman unveiled in March during the Games Developers Conference in San Francisco. Siren almost appears real — but within a few minutes viewers realize she’s not human, which can cause an uneasy feeling.

Beyond potentially transforming the film and video game industries, digital-human renderings such as Siren might also allow brands to create digital characters that look and act like people and can interact with customers in real time.

Virtual influencers and digital humans will continue to grow in popularity, and likely prove to be moneymakers for brands. For marketers and communicators, virtual influencers will also present challenges and opportunities, which I’ll address in future columns.

Cathy Hackl, APR

Cathy Hackl, APR, created the holographic press release and is a leading voice in augmented reality and virtual reality. A futurist and well-known speaker, she is co-author of “Marketing New Realities,” the only book on augmented reality and virtual reality for marketing. Hackl joined Atlanta-based You Are Here Labs in 2018, where she leads agencies, brands and companies in applying futuristic technologies.



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