An introductory note from VirtualHumans.org:

"Today we welcome Roanne de Kluizenaar to VirtualHumans.org to share her research on CGI influencers and their creators. Roanne conducted this research as part of her graduate thesis during her time at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences last year. Her thesis explores how fashion and culture relate to technology, and delves into what their collective future holds.

Her research provides vital virtual influencer insight, including industry projections and perspectives according to Armando Kirwin, Artur Muzaffari, and Scott Guthrie, mavens in these converging fields.

We hope you enjoy the valuable insights revealed in the following interviews, and the research paper at large, which can be downloaded here: [PDF| 69 pages | 5 MB]."

Armando Kirwin

Armando Kirwin is considered to be one of the most experienced creators and technologists working in the field of virtual and augmented reality. He created more than twenty notable Emmy nominated projects and owns a company dedicated to enabling a new form of computer interaction powered by hyper-engaging AI characters.


What do you feel/experience when looking at their images? Can you tell the difference?

As of 2019, it is becoming impossible to tell the difference between a real person and a CG Influencer based on static images. The best example of this is Imma.gram. We are not yet at a point where video is indistinguishable, but I believe we can achieve this goal within five years. As for the feeling that you get when you look at one, I think that it is identical to the feeling you get when interactive with any other influencer that you don’t know personally. It feels just as real.


Is their specific form of existence also a big thing within your field of expertise?

Their existence is great for our industry because it proves that average consumers are willing to interact with CG characters.


Do you consider them as autonomous characters/identities in a digital world? Or how do you consider/define them?

They are not yet autonomous, but my company is focused specifically on this goal.

Virtual creations have been around for a while now (e.g. virtual females such as Kyoko Date (1996) and Webbie Tookay (1999)) but never sparked worldwide interest. Why do you think these CGI influencers are suddenly such a cultural phenomenon?

The technology is getting better (graphics rendering, augmented reality, etc.), but also the culture has shifted such that people are more excited than ever to be part of virtual worlds or to have their favorite characters come to life in the real world. Basically, we are at a tipping point in terms of technology and cultural acceptance.


Which factors, in your eyes, play a dominant role within this popularity increase seen from a social-cultural perspective?

Social media basically reached a point where consumers can interact with CGI Influencers at scale. And these CGI Influencers are as real as the “fake” people on social media.


The fashion industry specifically is interested in these CGI influencers, what do you consider as their added value for this industry? Is it mainly from a commercial point of view in your opinion?

Their value has yet to be demonstrated, but there are some potential scenarios that may play out. For example, from a practical standpoint, it eliminates the most expensive cost (e.g., a world-famous model). And from an operations/logistical standpoint, it brings stability and reduces operational risks of working with unpredictable humans. 


Do you think their existence is temporary or permanent?

I think they are permanent and will occupy and ever-increasing role in society.


They are mainly present on Instagram, a place where the copy is preferred over the original. Do you, therefore, consider e.g. Lil Miquela any less real than other influencers?

Not at all. I consider Miquela as real and any other human influencer who is posting entirely through a highly-curated and largely-fabricated veneer.


How big do you think the role of avatars will be in the future? Especially the developments within AI and augmented reality go at a fast pace, how will that influence their existence?

I think they will fundamentally change human-computer interaction on a global scale.


Miquela and Shudu already had some great collaborations with e.g. Prada, Ellesse, and Louis Vuitton. Why do you think they are relevant for brands (especially within fashion) to work with over human influencers?

I’m not advocating for replacing human models, but brands seem to be primarily concerned with engaging audiences and selling products, and CGI influencers are perfectly capable of providing these services.


Can you maybe write a small future scenario for these CGI influencers (within the fashion industry)?

Imagine an influencer being able to converse with five million people simultaneously in their native language. Imagine a CGI Influencer that could alternate between being geographically/spatially located to one specific location or able to be expressed to millions of people simultaneously.Imagine a CGI Influencer that looks different to you and I based on our own personal preferences. 


Artur Muzaffari 

Artur Muzaffari is a 3D designer based in Germany. He is the creator of the CGI model @Dearnea. His focus is on creating 3D garments on 3D models. The garments are mainly coming forward out of techwear, fashion and fitnesswear


What do you feel/experience when looking at other CGI models’ images? Can you tell the difference?

Those artists that are popular at the moment I can surely see that their avatars were created using CGI. The thing is, that the common popular artists are usually not necessarily the best ones. They often not only use the software that isn’t state of the art regarding the industry but also just have the growth of their channel in mind so they are focused on producing a lot of content in a small timespan. Nevertheless I don’t think it’s even necessary to do any kind of ultra realistic CGI on any of the avatar kind of renderings we are mostly seeing out on social media. Take "noonoouri“ for example: she was created as an avatar with obvious features on her body that make it easy to tell she is "only an avatar“ using CGI. The fascinating thing though is that she is fully accepted as an human influencer not only by her community but also when it comes to brand deals.


What is the main reason behind the creation of NEA? How did you come up with the idea?

I started out by pushing myself to the limits of Cinema 4D. I was fascinated by all the kinds of materials I was able to create within this tool. I took a look at my surroundings and quickly realized that becoming more realistic using CGI meant to take a closer look at the people around me. There are a lot of things I didn’t care about at first, when I took a look at all the details that surrounded me on a daily basis (e.g. the texture of our skin). Personally I would never like to become an influencer with my own face. Being recognized on the streets sounded terrifying to me. NEA gave me a format to express myself through a second layer of anonymization.


Do you consider them as autonomous characters/identities in a digital world? Or how do you consider/define them?

On the one hand I identify NEA as a piece of art I continuously keep on working on. I feel like I can motivate and influence other artists by publishing my path on instagram. On the other hand there are a lot of folks that recognize NEA as an individual person and do not see me as an artist standing behind the scenes. I am not really sure what kind of perspective I prefer as long as the community appreciates this kind of art in either ways.


Virtual creations have been around for a while now (e.g. virtual females such as Kyoko Date (1996) and Webbie Tookay (1999)) but never sparked worldwide interest. Why do you think these CGI influencers are suddenly such a cultural phenomenon?

I personally believe that it’s all due to the way we communicate with each other. Social media wasn’t a thing back then. Something that I find to be more interesting was a Prada campaign that went on the roads back in 2012. They used some characters from a game called "final fantasy“ as the campaign image models. That was the first time I saw a CGI character in a commercial brand deal. Later on even Louis Vuitton used a second character from the game to run a promotion. I guess due to the move of the bigger players everyone just kind of followed the trend.


Which factors, in your eyes, play a dominant role within this popularity increase seen from a social-cultural perspective?

See above


The fashion industry specifically is interested in these CGI influencers, what do you consider as their added value for this industry? Is it mainly from a commercial point of view in your opinion?

Mainly it’s about the unknown. People constantly wondering about whether the person on that specific advertisement is real or not. This effect gains publicity and brand awareness.


Do you think their existence is temporary or permanent?

I believe it’s the beginning of something greater we cannot identify yet. We are usually scared of everything that looks like us humans, but doesn’t at the same time. We distance ourselves from robots due to insufficient identification with ourselves. We constantly believe that humans are the greatest and even if we would notice that these artificially created avatars can hold up to us - we try to stay distanced from the idea of being on the same level. As soon as we aren’t able to distinguish between reality and CGI we’ll start seeing the first "stars“ completely replacing their outer publicity with these artificially created avatars. So yes, we are only at the beginning.


They are mainly present on Instagram, also for NEA. It is a place where the copy is preferred over the original. Do you, therefore, consider e.g. Lil Miguela or NEA any less real than other influencers?

I think the question goes back to the roots of what an actual influencer defines. It’s an account that somehow build a following, which is subconsciously influenced by its creator. I don’t think it matters whether the account displays pictures of an existing person or an CGI avatar.


How big do you think the role of avatars will be in the future? Especially the developments within AI, 3D and augmented reality go at a fast pace, how will that influence their existence?

As soon as the technology is ready to fully implement AI in our daily lives we’ll notice a closer integration of CGI not only in the digital world (e.g. influencers) but also in our real real lives. It will further build the bridge between both world, online and offline.


Miquela and Shudu already had some great collaborations with e.g. Prada, Ellesse, and Louis Vuitton. Why do you think they are relevant for brands (especially within fashion) to work with over human influencers? 

(see Question 6): "Mainly it’s about the unknown. People constantly wondering about whether the person on that specific advertisement is real or not. This effect gains publicity and brand awareness."


What do you hope to achieve with your creation, NEA, in the near future? Any plans?

I want to focus on NEA’s personality and the general growth of the channel. As I am constantly growing when it comes to my abilities regarding CGI I noticed a strong affinity among 3D fashion. Maybe I will create my own label and hire NEA as my personal Influencer (well, maybe if she’s not too expensive). ;)


Can you maybe write a small future scenario for your CGI model (within the fashion industry)?

I could tell you, but then I would need to kill you.


Scott Alec Barton Guthrie 

Scott Guthrie owns his own blog dedicated to influencer marketing, personal influence and content strategy. He has much industry insights and is on top about trends moving along the axes of influencer marketing. 

What do you feel/experience when looking at CGI models’ images? Can you tell the difference?

The image is important. The ‘realness’ of the CGI model comes from his/her backstory. Lil Miquela has a very well-rounded, well curated back story. For me she is more ‘real’ than many of the Insta-famous. For this computer-generated Instagram influencer the “is she real? Isn’t she real?” question raged for many months - ever since she first published to Instagram. At the time each post elicited thousands of comments many addressing this question. But asking whether or not Lil Miquela is “a real girl” is to miss the point. “I keep getting asked if I’m real or fake. But, I’m really here, I’m really talking to you. I’m really DMing people. I’m just trying to make some great art and make the world hurt less … . Can you name one person on Instagram who doesn’t edit their photos?” Lil Miquela asked Shane Dawson in a rare 2017 telephone interview posted to his YouTube channel.


What is the main reason behind the creation of CGI influencers in your opinion?

There are several reasons mainly sitting under two main themes: technology & comment on society. Technological advances have enabled the creation of CGI influencers and achievable costs. Additionally, new software does not demand the programming skills it would have needed a few years ago. I also think that Lil Miquela can be viewed as a warning or critique on modern society. Instagram’s Insta-famous images have become so ingrained we no longer see them for the hyperreality they represent. CGI influencers act as change catalysts bringing fresh pairs of eyes to jolt us out of our blind spot. Dolls play an important role for society encapsulating who we are and passing that on in representational form to the next generation. 


Before Pinocchio got all ‘Disney-ied up’ the story of the woodcarver’s puppet who would-be-a-boy was an allegory for Italy during the industrial revolution. The story was a warning. Throughout the story of Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi, its author, chastises Pinocchio for his lack of moral fibre, his persistent rejection of responsibility and his desire for fun. Ultimately it was Pinocchio’s decision to provide for his father and devote himself to work hard, being good and studying that transformed him into a real boy with modern comfort.


Is Lil Miquela performance art? A Cassandra call warning of a broken social media age miss-used for over a decade? A PR stunt? A machine for making money out of the influencer marketing boom? She is, of course, a little of each. For now Miquela is an Instagram influencer who engages tirelessly with her following adapting content to their whims. True influence is the ability to change behaviours. Increasingly digital influence is how someone (or something) trades the currency of attention for a specific audience at a specific time. Lil Miquela is achieving both of these. She represents the current phase in the continually shifting sands of how brands promote and connect with their stakeholders.


Do you consider them as autonomous characters/identities in a digital world? Or how do you consider/define them?

They are not autonomous. Every action is choreographed by their human creators. In the case of Lil Miquela this is Brud. For Shudu it’s Cameron-James Wilson.


Virtual creations have been around for a while now (e.g. virtual females such as Kyoko Date (1996) and Webbie Tookay (1999)) but never sparked worldwide interest. Why do you think these CGI influencers are suddenly such a cultural phenomenon? And which factors, in your eyes, play a dominant role within this popularity increase seen from a social-cultural perspective?

Social media, specifically Instagram has enabled these CGI influencers to become global cultural phenomena. The rise of the avatar influencer is only a natural extension within one corner of influencer marketing- merely the next iteration. Whilst new to the influencer marketing discipline avatars are not new within other creative industries. In music, for instance, Damon Albarn created virtual band Gorillaz twenty years ago in 1998. Hatsune Miku, a singing Japanese hologram was released more than a decade ago, in 2007. After Miku came Aimi Eguchi; eerily human-like but actually a CGI composite of several members of Tokyo’s female pop supergroup AKB48. The secret to the success of Lil Miquela as an Instagram influencer is her portrayal of the rounded self and her relationship with her followers.


The fashion industry specifically is interested in these CGI influencers, what do you consider as their added value for this industry? Is it mainly from a commercial point of view in your opinion?

Brands who work with avatar influencers can forgo the effort, time and cost of :

• Carefully identifying, selecting and briefing influencers.

• Vetting influencers through a thorough process of digital due diligence.

• Fretting that a CGI influencer will produce another Logan Paul Aokigahara forest moment and tarnish their brand by association.

• CGI influencers will always turn up on time for the creative shoot, too.


These avatar influencers become dolls or mannequins that can be placed within any context and dressed in any sponsoring-fashion house’s garment.

They’ll always look Insta-immaculate. They’ll never put on weight or suffer from acne or other skin complaints. The clothes they advertise will always hang beautifully from their pixelated bodies. 

What could be future industries for CGI influencers to collaborate with?

It depends on brand budgets, and the time, effort and quality of the CGI influencer’s backstory; what they believe in.


They are mainly present on Instagram, a place where the copy is preferred over the original. Do you, therefore, consider e.g. Lil Miquela any less real than other influencers?

I would argue that Lil Miquela is MORE real than many other influencers. The secret to the success of Lil Miquela as an Instagram influencer is her portrayal of the rounded self and her relationship with her followers. Lil Miquela is more than a clothes horse. She shares stories of British school boys helping avert a suicide attempt. She writes letters to the US Congress in support of the transgender community and builds awareness within her following of the 1.4m transgender group living in her country. The URL in the bio on her Instagram feed links to black girls code - a charity aiming to increase the number of women of colour in the digital space. Such elements are expertly curated to communicate the rounded self of what it means to be human. A set of values and ethics which overlay the commercial imperative of identifying brand sponsorship.Stand this against British teenager Leo Mandella, aka Gully Guy Leo, for instance. He’s brilliant at what he does. And what he does is streetwear. His 712,000-plus Instagram followers aren’t specifically interested in him as a rounded personality. They do, however, want to see his vast collection of hyped streetwear. Distilling Gully Guy Leo to his constituent parts: he is an online streetwear mannequin. Given this context Lil Miquela becomes more ‘real’ than many human Instagram influencers.


How big do you think the role of avatars will be in the future? Especially the developments within AI, 3D and augmented reality go at a fast pace, how will that influence their existence? Do you think their existence is temporary or permanent?

They have a permanent place. As long as they can quickly demonstrate an ethical dimension. This goes back to the point about a rounded self.


Miquela and Shudu already had some great collaborations with e.g. Prada, Ellesse, and Louis Vuitton. Why do you think they are relevant for brands (especially within fashion) to work with over human influencers?What makes them so valuable?

I’ve covered this above. But also big brands wanted to be associated with the Zeitgeist. And these immaculate CGI models demonstrate this. 


And seen from a consumer perspective, what could be the added value for them?

They can produce more aspirational, aesthetically-pleasing content.


Can you maybe write a small future scenario for CGI models (within the fashion industry)?

Lil Miquela was at Coachella last year. She has attended fashion weeks in the past. Why can’t she produce her own collection for a fashion house next?

———

This concludes our highlight from Roanne de Kluizenaar's thesis, which you can read in full here: [PDF| 69 pages | 5 MB].

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