By Pragati Verma, Contributor
Meet Miquela Sousa, a 19-year-old celebrity with 1.5 million Instagram followers. Listed as one of the 25 most influential people on the internet by Time magazine last year, she wears high-end fashion brands like Fendi, Chanel, Prada, and Supreme. Recently, she went to Coachella to conduct interviews with performers for YouTube via a two-weekend livestream.
It might sound impressive, but that’s not the biggest deal about her. As her Instagram bio proudly announces, she is not a real human but a computer generated imagery (CGI) bot created by Los Angeles-based robotics and AI company Brud.
Miquela is not the only digital influencer with a modeling career. Her cohort from Brud includes Blawko and Bermuda. Other prominent virtual celebrities include Shudu, created by British photographer Cameron-James Wilson, and 20-year-old digital model Lil Wavy that promotes street-wear brand Waviboy.
Why are brands so keen to embrace these virtual influencers? “Having a CGI influencer for a brand is very similar to having an ambassador, but better,” explains Emily Groom, founder and creative director of Waviboy. She believes that their appeal is twofold. For one, it is a new technology, and so she is not surprised that so many people are intrigued by virtual influencers. “It’s a new idea. It’s a totally new world to understand and to be involved in.”
Secondly, CGI influencers open up new possibilities. Excited about “a world of endless visual creative opportunities,” Groom explains, “we are able to achieve shoots and campaigns extremely fast and cheap. I can ask Lil Wavi to take a picture of himself on Mars in a matter of seconds!”
CGI characters might be new to fashion, but they’re well-mixed with humans in cinema. Since the 1990s, characters powered by CGI have made waves in films like Jurassic Park and Toy Story. Today, CGI characters continue to win over viewers in major blockbuster hits, from Avatar to the Transformers series, as well as the highly anticipated remake of Lion King.
Based in London, Groom created Lil Wavi last year to promote Waviboy. An avid video game player, she created a “digital character with an intriguing sadomasochistic appeal” to model her garments. Soon, she realized that “people really [dug] the concept.” Encouraged, she gave him an Instagram account and “ultimately a life.” She elaborates, “It made sense to encourage him to have his own personality and build his identity through experience. I introduced Instagram to him so he could explore our world and interact with all different types of people.”
“It made sense to encourage him to have his own personality and build his identity through experience.” —Emily Groom, founder and creative director of Waviboy
He might be fake, but his personality seems to be constantly evolving to help create a more interesting and engaged customer experience. “I don’t make Lil Wavi, he makes himself. It’s similar to any other human being, identity-wise,” she says. And “letting go of building his personality and identity” was her biggest challenge. “I overcame this by understanding it’s more authentic for him to find himself rather than follow a path.”
Groom has a point: Creating a CGI personality involves much more than technology and aesthetics. Brud, for instance, tried to create an air of mystery around Miquela by initially hiding her identity. Pretending to be a real human, she would often exhibit strong political views; she raised Black Lives Matter and DACA-related issues in multiple posts. In a dramatic twist, she conceded she is a robot in an Instagram post. “I am not a human being,” she admitted, after a staged feud with Bermuda, another CGI influencer created by the same company.
While she is a high-profile example of a virtual influencer evolving to align with its fans, others like Lil Wavi never tried to hide that they are virtual characters. Nevertheless, they faced some skepticism from “people who don’t really understand who he is.” Groom says, “New technologies and new concepts that are controversial are going to get mixed opinions. But, at the end of the day, negative opinions are still conversations.”
Unfazed, she is ready with her ambitious plans for Lil Wavi this year. “I know he is spending a lot of time in the music studio and experimenting with sound. He is also building videos for YouTube, which I feel will be crazy,” she says.
Rise of Synthetic Media
CGI influencers like Miquela and Lil Wavy might be blurring the boundaries between real and virtual, but they are only the beginning. These CGI robots are now inspiring venture capitalists like Betaworks Ventures to invest in digital beings powered by artificial intelligence (AI) tools. At Betaworks’ next startup camp, focused on synthetic or algorithmically created or modified media, the company will invest $200,000 each in 10 startups that want to build technology to create better digital influencers.
Encouraged by huge advances in motion capture, pose estimation, 3D graphics software, and GPUs, Peter Rojas, partner at Betaworks Ventures predicts in a blogpost, “Synthetic media will be to CGI what social media was to publishing.”