In the late 1990s, the Gorillaz — a virtual music band made up of four animated characters — introduced the concept of digital avatars to the general public.
A decade later, in 2013, artistic director Marc Jacobs designed costumes for Hatsune Miku, a virtual pop singer who collaborated with musicians Lady Gaga and Pharrell Williams. More recently, the emergence of Lil Miquela, a 19-year old Instagram star, social influencer, and recording artist who happens not to be real, has reignited a broader conversation about digital avatars, so much so that Time magazine featured a digital avatar in its 25 Most Influential People on the Internet line-up. Today this technology has begun to appear in a wider array of business and personal applications, beginning to blur the lines between the virtual and real worlds in a way that was envisioned by sci fi writers of previous decades.
Much has been written about the origins and landscape of this phenomenon, and I won’t cover that ground in this post. For more on the digital avatar market, this blog post by Michael Dempsey stands out as an excellent overview and analysis. Instead, this piece seeks to outline what I see as the first instantiation of companies built around this emerging ecosystem. There are a myriad of potential applications for which digital avatars can be useful, but for investors, some applications are better suited for long-term sustainability, while others seem more akin to flash-in-the-pan fads.
In assessing this sector, I break the digital avatars ecosystem into three major areas (in chronological order of development): digital influencers, digital celebrities, and the digital self. For each, I will assess the opportunities to build a business and highlight companies working within that space, then discuss my expectations of how the market will evolve in its early stages.
We live in an age of authenticity whereby millennials and Generation Z consumers don’t want to feel marketed to. They regard authenticity as more important than the content itself, caring more about being able to relate to the source of the content than the information being presented. Especially with the rise of misinformation in social media platforms like Facebook, we’re starting to see increased skepticism in young people who worry that their personal information is being collected to sell them things. People want authenticity, but the advent of the digital age and social media has turned people into brands, and in many ways brands are becoming more like people. Just look at Instagram and Twitter respectively.
What has made Lil Miquela so successful, in my opinion, is that a team of people is crafting a narrative around her and her friends that makes her life feel authentic. The “influencers” we see online are curated carefully to garner attention and monetise likes; therefore they are inherently inauthentic. Lil Miquela, on the other hand, makes no claims to authenticity: by revealing herself as a robot, she is showing all that she has, without the Instagram filters and saturated colors.
Ironically, it is the fact that she is completely manufactured and managed that enables her to be an influencer. While she isn’t herself real, she’s created to touch on the authentic needs, desires, and interests of her target audience, so she represents an authentic expression of the group’s gestalt.
“We’ve become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions. While the world he inhabits is in some respects counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn’t always Shakespeare, but its genuine. It’s a life.” — Christof (Ed Harris), the director and creator of The Truman Show
Just like any great character in literature or opera or the stage, the character is made up, but the issues it touches on are not (i.e. Lil Miquela helped amplify and give a voice to Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights, and encouraged young people to vote). Indeed, as Dr. Tama Leaver, an associate professor of internet studies at Curtin University, notes, “She is all the influence without all the stuff we are not supposed to see.”
The storyline of Lil Miquela unwinds on a path between reality and imagination, much like the Jim Carrey film “The Truman Show” and HBO’s recent hit “Westworld.” A command center-esque digital agency where humans plot out the storyline, introduce the story beats, and craft the characters’ personalities makes the characters feel real. Unlike chatbots today, which feel like thousands of people’s personalities are sandwiched into one, having a single virtual character with a consistent voice gives a digital entity a real feel, infusing it with a more genuine attractiveness in this age of authenticity.
Ultimately, I’d love to see how jobs might be created within this space. So much of AI has been about displacing jobs, e.g., “service jobs are going to evaporate because you can replace them with bots.” But what if, instead, those same people can become ghostwriters behind influencers or become part of a team that helps build these digital characters’ personalities to make them more human? These displaced workers might now take on the role of creating a Mechanical Turk for digital influencers.
Have you seen the video of Obama calling Trump a “complete dipshit”? That video was created using a technique called deepfake, an AI-based human image synthesis technique that offers the ability to swap one face for another in an image or a video (please take a look at Gaurav Oberoi’s excellent explainer on the world of deepfakes). As the technology continues to improve, I see digital celebrities taking off as a forcing function of deepfakes. The original deepfake code is published on GitHub, so the implementation is relatively trivial; the greatest bottleneck occurs in the collection and preparation of training data (on the order of 300–2000 images).
But because there are millions of celebrity photos online, it’s easy to create your very own Brad Pitt deepfake that can replicate his voice and likeness. Celebrity is profitable because of its relative scarcity, but because there are usually plenty of images available for any given celebrity, the phenomenon of a celebrity may be digitally replicable, and thus celebrities risk losing the very uniqueness that built their brand. Celebrities are going to have to license their likeness with respect to certain properties or otherwise lose money. What’s going to happen when people start remaking movies with different actors or new dialogue? What will movie companies like Disney do? Smart companies that are able to tackle this issue will be at the forefront of preventing the destruction of their revenue stream like the ones caused by Napster and Bit-Torrent.
I see the initial path to productisation being similar to the early growth of style transfer — the technique of recomposing images in the style of other images. When style transfer came out of academia, Prisma emerged as the first company to productise it. In a similar fashion, I see the first widespread adoption of deepfake being a fun social app, an equivalent of a Snapchat filter whereby instead of you being Kim Kardashian, Kim K will be in the selfie with you, licensing her likeness so you can, for example, take a pic with her on the beach.
As adoption continues to grow, the biggest value is likely to be in the use of digital celebrities in the professional video / film production space. In a recent episode of “Westworld” there is a scene featuring a young Anthony Hopkins. According to visual effects supervisor Nick Worth, the de-aging was a mix of CGI and live-action filming. “We took a scan of Sir Tony and used that as our base; [we] then used a ton of photography and reference to figure out what we wanted him to look like.”
Imagine if you could do this much more cheaply and effectively, and if you could take older artists and allow them to portray younger versions of themselves. Or, even better, bring back popular artists of yesteryear, generating revenue for the estates of long-dead actors by bringing them back to life. A celebrity’s time and reach is finite, but a digitized version is not limited by the same physical constraints, thereby opening up new solutions and resources for content creation and monetization.
Rather than just having Anthony Hopkins put out movies forever, what if we could extend relationships with people and family members? By creating a digital representation of someone we know to be real, we are essentially extending life as we know it. This can be accomplished by combining someone’s digital footprint with natural language processing and AI algorithms. Using these methods, we could theoretically extend someone’s life into a virtual eternity. Pullstring was most famous for making dadbot. Replika got started because its creator’s friend died in a car crash. One can imagine a future in which people use voice or conversational interfaces to create personalized relationships with virtual characters, whether that’s a replica of your dead relative or best friend.
We’re already starting to see personalized relationships developing between humans and machines. Have you ever wondered why Google’s assistant doesn’t have a name? Unlike Siri or Alexa, you trigger Google Home by saying “OK, Google.” I don’t know the answer, but I’d speculate that by doing it this way, it might be easier for Google the company to personalize “OK, Google.” When everyone calls their digital assistant Alexa or Siri, it suggests that everybody’s Alexa or Siri is the same because it’s personified as the same person. My Google, on the other hand, could be very different from your Google, since it has developed different facets of its “personality” based on your interactions.
The first inceptions of the digital self are going to be applications that I believe appeal to the needs at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. Virtualize therapy and have it sound like a real person sympathizing at the other end of the phone line. A lot of the fear and friction that come with asking for help, or the need to build trust with a stranger, are alleviated via this method. Inhibitions melt away faster with a digital entity. In fact, an ongoing study within USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) is using virtual therapists to help veterans open up about their PTSD. “People are very open to feeling connected to things that aren’t people,” says Gale Lucas, a psychologist at USC’s ICT and lead author of the study.
Once those higher needs are met, I can see the digital self gaining wider acceptance as it transitions from outside relationships to personal ones. In an era when talking to Siri and Alexa has become mainstream, interacting with a virtual dead relative may not seem such a radical idea. Hossein Rahnama, a visiting professor at the MIT Media Lab who is leading a project called Augmented Eternity, predicts that persona-based chatbots are two to five years away: “We are reaching a level of data maturity where we can represent someone’s identity, and reliably predict responses.” The remaining question is “how it gets rolled out in order to go mainstream.”
Technology and society have advanced immensely since the Gorillaz used a digital avatar to package videos and market music. This space has only now started to gain traction, and the recent success of Brud (the creator of Lil Miquela) may provide a window into why. First, Brud understands its audience and does a good job of connecting with humans by touching on things that are culturally at the top of people’s minds or part of the zeitgeist. Second, they use transmedia storytelling to develop brand “story worlds,” popularised by Disney, taking a holistic view that a story can take place on multiple channels and the digital realm is just one of those channels.
I’m excited about this space because I see the digital realm as one more channel where people can interact with their real-world experience. For this reason, I’m bullish on a growth trajectory that starts with the digital representation of what people know as real, beginning with trivial applications like fun social apps or very specific purposes like the virtual therapist described above. The gradual addition of concrete and successful applications will help build people’s comfort with the concept, just as Alexa and Siri have become daily tools for many of us. They will pave the way for later development of apps that identify something real, sustain it for longer, add emotional investment, and thus open up multiple channels for monetisation.
This technology is challenging our understanding of reality, authenticity, and selfhood — and therefore has vast opportunities for commercialisation as well as vast opportunities for misunderstanding and puzzlement among adopters. If we can preserve the core elements of an existing relationship, rooted in what’s real, then I believe these technologies will be adopted.