A Primer on Digital Humans
Meet the lifelike creations gaining fame and followers in the real world
Photoshop and a little ingenuity are all it takes to create a celebrity these days. I’m not referring to the swaths of Instagram models who have gained notoriety by doctoring their photos. I’m talking about digital humans, lifelike personalities created from scratch. Their images are as fake as their backstories, but their impact is very real.
Digital Humans Are Here
Digital humans are part of a growing movement we need to pay attention to. Previously, I wrote about Lil Miquela, the digital human who has become a digital influencer in the fashion industry:
She’s a 19-year-old fashion model and singer, with a Brazilian background. In a matter of two years, she’s gained over a million followers, modeled the clothes of some of the highest fashion brands, and just raised $6 million to keep it up.
But, she’s not really a “she” at all.
Lil Miquela isn’t the first digital human to reach this level of fame.
Many of us are familiar with the Gorillaz, a virtual band created by musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett. The band consists of four digital humans: 2-D on lead vocals and keyboard, Murdoc Niccals on bass guitar, Noodle on guitar, and Russel Hobbs on the drums. They’ve packed stadiums, collaborated with the likes of Snoop Dogg and D12, and even won a Grammy.
However, for every digital human that has garnered fame, there are thousands that haven’t. So, how does a digital human create influence and gain a following?
It starts with a story. There needs to be something relatable—a cause they fight for, an image they promote, or a backstory that needs to be shared.
Creating these stories or choosing a cause is the easy part. The hard part is striking the right tone with a digital human’s artistic self-expression.
For Ava, a digital human on the cusp of stardom, it’s “her” pansexuality that makes her more relatable to her following of more than 5,000. Another is Perl, who similarly promotes body positivity, often showing off the mark around her eye that discolored her skin.
Some of the stories go even deeper, such as Lil Miquela’s liberation by her creators from a nefarious plot to sell her “to the world’s elite as a servant and sex object.”
Creating these stories or choosing a cause is the easy part. The hard part is striking the right tone with a digital human’s artistic self-expression. This is the element that pulls people in.
For example, Lil Miquela’s defining characteristic is her sense of style. She’s very fashionable, often rocking the latest streetwear trends. Melissa Cohen seems to be strategically positioning her digital human brand in the food industry, promoting Blue Apron products and posting a lot of food pictures.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. What’s the difference between these digital humans and, say, Homer Simpson? He, too, is made of computer graphics, has a backstory, and connects with millions. Is Homer Simpson a digital human?
Not quite. In fact, I wouldn’t consider any animated characters that start on television or in movies to be digital humans because they lack one defining characteristic.
Living Life to the Fullest
A key characteristic of digital humans is the illusion that they are “just living life” like the rest of us. Digital humans need to share their thoughts and emotions just as much as you and I do, and they do so through social media.
Even though some of them admit they are robots, social media allows digital humans to cultivate an image of realism. Very simply, they can hit the hearts of fans without needing to be talented or entertaining.
For instance, Donny Red gives people a taste of his daily fun: riding roller coasters, diving into the pool, celebrating his pet turtle’s birthday. Nothing about him screams, “I’m a digital creation, and I want you to spend your time and money on me.” Yet, he still connects with over 125,000 fans.
Another example is Blawko, a friend of Lil Miquela, who posts pictures of himself hanging out and interacting with real people. Occasionally he even does “regular people” things, such as going to a job interview.
I could even picture Blawko one day partnering with a company like Soul Machines, reimagining how we interact with machines. Soul Machines recently did a concept campaign showing how McDonald’s could employ interactive digital humans at ordering kiosks.
There’s no reason that popular, relatable digital humans like Blawko couldn’t find employment through a Soul Machines provider—integrating their likeness into a corporate or service role. Not to mention, it’s another stream of income for the creators of these digital humans.
Digital humans have opportunities emerging because social media allows them to relate on a human level and project the illusion they are living life like the rest of us.
Contrast this with Homer Simpson, Mickey Mouse, or George Jetson, who could only share their lives in preprogrammed 30-minute time slots a couple of times a week. Eventually, through amusement parks and merchandising, they were able to expand beyond the confines of TV. But that came secondary.
Digital humans often begin their existence on social media, before they create an animated series, music, or art. It’s a unique position for these anthropomorphic images of reality.
And, for that reason, they are becoming quite the hot commodity.
Consumers are increasingly placing their trust in people over companies. Look at how swiftly Kylie Jenner’s brand amassed a billion-dollar fortune. Women her age, give or take a few years, find it easy to relate to her. Meanwhile, all of her actions are deliberately choreographed with the goal of making her cosmetics line flourish, her television show grow, etc.
In much the same way, everything about a digital human can be cognizantly created—from their personality to their struggles to the way they overcome those struggles. All of this is used to build trust and ultimately push an agenda. In many ways, digital humans are a marketer’s ideal influencer.
Take, for example, a pharmaceutical company like Pfizer that spends around $3 billion on advertising every year.
One of Pfizer’s premier products is the antidepressant Zoloft. Today, the route to selling this drug is through TV commercials. In just one minute, the company has to build interest, garner trust, and make the pitch. It’s a very traditional approach to advertising.
Digital human influencers are more reliable, trustworthy, and less of a hassle than their flesh-and-blood counterparts.
Why not instead take a small portion of this massive budget, delegate a team within the company, and build the brands of a few digital humans? If done properly, digital humans could advertise by subtly talking about their relatable issues (in this case, depression). Over time, through this facade of honesty, a drug company could promote its agenda, with its digital humans openly talking about taking medications.
A future in which consumers follow this fiction may seem like a sad reality. But this type of long-term storytelling, however manipulative, is effective.
Look at it through the lens of a corporation. Digital human influencers are more reliable, trustworthy, and less of a hassle than their flesh-and-blood counterparts. All of their actions are controlled by the organization. They aren’t going to “pull a Justin Bieber” and get arrested for drag racing a Lamborghini. Or turn out to be a child molester like Jared from Subway.
Companies need spokespeople to sell products, and advertisers need to keep consumers engaged. Fictional storytelling through digital humans satisfies everyone. Except the consumer, who is deliberately lied to. (But what’s new?)
Although the application of digital humans to corporate advertising is an interesting concept, more than anything, I believe that digital humans will first and foremost impact entertainment.
The Machine Behind the Digital Celebrity
Building a digital human requires ingenuity, craftsmanship, and time. It’s really no different from building a personal brand.
Teams of people are executing these strategies in much the same way that real influencers have teams working behind them. For instance, Drake has a sound engineer, stylist, writers, PR strategists, and dozens of other people all working to make his brand the showrunner. Same goes for politicians, athletes, and public speakers.
This is not a new concept. The only difference with digital humans is that the showrunner isn’t a person. It’s an avatar. And what’s truly unique is the ability of a digital human to be in many places at once.
Theoretically, a “digital Drake” could record a music video, shoot a campaign with Nike, and perform for thousands all at once. Most of all, he wouldn’t have to worry about getting tired or worn out. He could do this day after day since there’s an entire machine running behind him.
The movie industry is digitizing practically its entire process. Many scenes take place in front of a green screen; the various parts are spliced together.
And it’s not just the settings that are digital. Pioneering moments for the digital human actors have already happened. Brad Pitt was almost entirely recreated using graphics in the Curious Case of Benjamin Button. In Avatar, the faces of actors morphed into new beings.
There’s no reason that any of the digital humans I’ve mentioned couldn’t star in one of these Hollywood blockbusters. In fact, it behooves the production studios to grow their own digital humans and cast them in movies, eliminating the costs of hiring outside talent.
But there’s still one area where the digital celebrity misses the mark completely: meeting fans.
Bringing Digital Humans to Life
In this digital age, it’s possible to build a brand without being physically present. But real-life interaction remains a crucial aspect of celebrity life.
The movie S1m0ne foresaw this issue perfectly. The digital celebrity, Simone, could rock the stage, but when it came time to meet the public where they were—on the red carpet, outside a hotel, in restaurants—she failed.
Then again, perhaps digital celebrities will experience physicality differently. Augmented reality applications could potentially be used to bring these avatars to life. In much the same way Pokémon Go places Pokémon characters in the streets through our phone screens, we could bring digital humans to the streets as well.
Magic Leap, the maker of augmented reality glasses, recently previewed this possibility. MICA is a digital human concept that essentially acts as the operating system for digital humans. Although visually completed, MICA is an alterable piece of software that brands and corporations can change to fit their narrative—and then deploy to the augmented world.
Perhaps a better alternative to bringing digital humans to life is holograms. Pepper’s Ghost is a 150-year-old illusion technique where holographic images can be formed by reflecting images or videos off of Plexiglas.
Companies like Pulse Evolution use this technique today to create hyperrealistic digital humans for entertainment. Famously, the company created the animated live performance of Michael Jackson at the Billboard Music Awards in 2014. There’s no reason this technique couldn’t be copied elsewhere, creating digital humans all around us.
For the foreseeable future, there’s always going to be some sort of “portal” required to interact with digital humans—like phone screens, AR glasses, or holograms. That’s just the nature of creating this new being.
But, in a way, these digital humans are already in a different dimension: existing right under our noses, only accessible when we take out our devices to “see” into their realm.
As more and more digital humans are embraced by society, there’s potential for them to rise to celebrity status and influence the way we are entertained.
Threat or Solution?
I’m not entirely sure whether digital celebrities are good or bad for their respective industries or for our perspective on reality.
Nonetheless, the explosion of digital humans is upon us. Graphics technology, social media, and storytellers are all merging together to bring this new being to life.
You don’t have to like it. You don’t even have to pay attention. But just know that digital humans are out there. And they’re the future of influence.