Rozy is one of the hottest social media stars in South Korea — a strikingly beautiful model, actress and dancer whose adventures have attracted 149,000 followers on Instagram. She’s done a commercial for insurance company Shinhan Life and, earlier this year, even embarked upon a singing career with the single “Who Am I.”
That’s a pretty impressive career for someone who isn’t actually a real, flesh-and-blood person. Instead, Rozy is a computer-generated artificial celebrity, created by cutting-edge technology outfit LOCUS-X. (Here’s a CNBC interview with the company’s executive director.) Rozy is a prime example of the rising phenomenon of virtual influencers, which companies increasingly see as a powerful way to connect with young consumers.
Virtual influencers such as Lu do Magalu and Miquela Sousa have amassed millions of followers on Instagram. Luxury brand Prada developed a “virtual muse” named Candy to promote a fragrance of the same name. The World Health Organization even used a virtual influencer in a COVID-19 prevention campaign in 2020.
The Evolution of Virtual Influencers
While they’re still a nascent phenomenon in the U.S., virtual influencers are already a major marketing tool in Asian countries. In addition to Rozy, there’s also Lucy, a virtual influencer created by Korean retail brand Lotte Home Shopping. In China, research has found that nearly two-thirds of Chinese internet users follow computer-generated celebrities, according to a 2021 article in business publication Jing Daily.
“The space has evolved in both form (medium) and popularity reach,” explains Christopher Travers. He’s the founder and editor-in-chief of VirtualHumans.org, a website that reports upon and analyzes the virtual influencer industry.
“Virtual influencers started primarily in the cartoon medium, then expanded as creative technologies lowered the barrier to entry to generate compelling art (sometimes referred to as content),” Travers says via email. “Now, as the tools to generate compelling virtual media continue to evolve and facilitate more varied and advanced forms of creation, the nature of the media we consume evolves with it. That being said, all signs point to continued advancements on the virtual creator tools front, indicating an increased supply of virtual, gaming and avatar media. This matches a growing demand for the same media driven by the aging up of generations raised on this content (e.g., kids raised on iPads or playing video games).”
In their brief existence, virtual influencers already have evolved significantly.
“Early virtual influencers were more hand-crafted — CGI was used to make the form, and motion capture of real human actors was used to produce realistic motion,” explains Peter J. Bentley via email. He’s an honorary professor and teaching fellow in the department of computer science, University College London, who has held positions at several other institutions in the U.K. and Asia, and has published more than 300 scientific papers and several books on computing.
“Today we can use generative machine learning (AI) to create photorealistic artificial bodies, faces and voices automatically and so-called ‘deepfake’ technology to substitute the face and/or bodies of anyone in a video,” Bentley continues. “This means the creation of virtual influencers becomes considerably easier. Eventually AI will be able to generate bodies and behaviors without human actors; however, getting them to say and do the right thing at all times may still need the help of humans for a while.”
AI Allows Virtual Influencers to Interact
Additionally, creators of virtual influencers have begun to utilize AI to create a new generation of increasingly sophisticated influencers capable of interacting with followers. In a New Scientist article from June 2022, writer Tevy Kuch reports on virtual influencer Serah Reikka, whose personality and appearance are shaped by algorithms, and can evolve over time, based upon information gathered from Wikipedia. While a team of humans still corrects and manages Reikka, it’s actually AI that decides what she will do next. “I build in my own path,” the synthetic character explained, while acknowledging that she “wisely followed advice from [her] human friends.”
That sort of interaction is still in its early stages. It took Reikka two hours to generate responses to Kuch’s questions, and another 10 hours to render the animation in which she uttered the words.
As the technology evolves, virtual influencers someday might be able to respond in something closer to real time to humans. But if they eventually become a ubiquitous part of everyday life, it’s still unclear how our interactions with them might affect us. A June 2022 study, published in the journal New Media and Society, found that viewers’ parasocial response to virtual influencers — that is, their one-sided relationship with a media persona — doesn’t differ significantly from their response to influencers who actually are human.
“The aim is to have audiences fully engaged and invested in the virtual lives of these unreal humans so that they can be used to sell products and services,” Bentley says. “Many virtual influencers have just as many (or more) followers compared to real humans. In that respect, the semblance of human contact might relieve the loneliness of some.”
What Is the Effect of Virtual Perfection?
There doesn’t yet seem to be a lot of research specifically focusing on virtual influencers’ effect on users. But a study published in January 2022 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, which looked more generally at social media influencers, found that for young women in their teens and twenties, browsing influencers’ images was associated with dissatisfaction with the viewers’ own bodies.
Bentley is concerned that “the unrealistic bodies of influencers may lead to more eating disorders and body dysmorphia in those who substitute real human interaction for this form of fake ‘relationship.'”
It’s not hard to imagine future AI-powered virtual influencers having a powerful effect upon followers by utilizing virtual reality and advances in haptics, a type of technology that stimulates the senses of touch and motion. But AI’s ability to simulate human-like emotions could be even more potent.
“Humans are remarkably adept at seeing human emotions and feelings in almost anything, so greater realism is not always required,” Bentley says. “Indeed, the ‘uncanny valley’ effect that we see in robotics can be evident in virtual influencers too — the more freedom we have to interact with and observe an artificial entity, the more realistic its behavior needs to be, otherwise it might start to appear a bit robotic or freaky. For that reason, sometimes it’s better to have a cartoon-like character where our expectations for behavior are not so demanding.”
Ultimately, Bentley cautions, any interaction with a virtual influencer — no matter how realistic — will be one-sided, since the computer-generated artificial person can’t develop feelings for the human follower.
That is, unless artificial intelligence technology becomes a whole lot more advanced.