YouTuber Ami Yamato has been an influencer for almost ten years. Yet, she’s not a real person. Does it even matter? “Nobody is real on Youtube. Everyone is a persona of their true self,” she said at the beginning of this year, which also marked the rise of virtual influencers because human beings were locked down in their homes.
“I guess, I just blend in,” says Ami Yamato when asked if people recognize her in the streets. She claims to come from Japan and is currently living in London.
Ami Yamato started her video blog back in 2011 when she moved to London. This is a perfect example of the fact that virtual influencers are not something new. By 2022, brands will be spending $15 billion annually on influencers, Business Insider Intelligence predicts.
“In addition to celebrities with massive followings like Kim Kardashian West and Kylie Jenner, brands are increasingly tapping other key influencer types, including micro- and nanoinfluencers, kidfluencers, gaming influencers, and virtual (computer-generated) influencers,” the report reads.
While CyberNews contributor Neil C. Hughes introduced some of the virtual influencers, I sat down with Christopher Travers from VirtualHumans.org to get to know the people behind those virtual influencers. Is there artificial intelligence involved? Do virtual influencers age? Do they die? Are they less real than glamorous human celebrities?
I like Yamato’s thought that nobody is real on YouTube. It left me thinking that she is no more “unreal” than other human celebrities, for example, the Kardashians. Now the question for you is whether you consider them imaginary in the same way, or if both types of celebrities - virtual and human influencers - are the reality?
Ami Yamato is right - YouTube, and digital experiences in general, reflect a memory of reality. The internet is a two-dimensional, digital representation of life, and virtual influencers are given relevance due to this norm. Virtual influencers are, in effect, as real as human influencers on digital mediums.
Who are the brains behind virtual influencers? Is there artificial intelligence involved in this?
For the overwhelming majority of virtual influencer teams, the brain is constructed by a writers' table, much like in Hollywood. Rarely, at this moment, does AI play a role in any virtual influencers who sustain any value beyond just a fading novelty.
How important is it to you and your clients that virtual characters you create resemble real humans? And which ones are more popular?
It really depends on the goal in creating the virtual influencer. For some, they want a humanoid, like Lil Miquela, and others just want a 2D character with a fun life. Humanoids beyond the uncanny valley are far more popular with both brands and journalists, but not necessarily with consumers.
How much time, effort and money does it take to create a successful character?
It depends on one's goal. A general rule of thumb is a quality virtual influencer with designers, models, storytellers, character managers, and a growth plan costs well into five figures, and the full experience requires even higher budgets to execute well.
Do these influencers get old? Do they die? Do their pets, relatives die? Or are they just happy shiny people, preserved in time?
Virtual influencers are a neutral content medium. Like podcasts, like short-form videos, or like selfies, virtual influencers can be used for whatever purpose the creator desires. If the team wants them to age, they age—if the team wants them to die, they die. It's all a sandbox.
Do their followers know that they are not real? Do you have any character who is thought to be a real person?
Most virtual influencer followers are aware the people they are following are not real people, though some definitely do not. I cannot quantify the weight towards either belief, and will re-emphasize how much it depends on which virtual influencer. For some time, many believe Shudu Gram to be real before it was made widely known she is a virtual creation.
What’s the most interesting character for you?
Grimes' WarNymph is one of my favorite virtual beings. WarNymph beta version 1.0 represents an uncharted future where we can create IP reflecting microcosms of ourselves, then split and distributed in varying mediums towards varying, or possibly unified, goals. This freedom to recreate ourselves multiple times over into transmedia is indicative of how deep into culture Grimes exists. Grimes' WarNymph represents the future of virtual influence.
Is every character you create a success? How many did you have to “kill” so far?
I've killed many digital personas over the years, but none of them virtual influencers. The virtual influencers we work on at VirtualHumans are successful thanks to our focus on design, storytelling, monetization, and growth. If one does not work out, we will artfully and mindfully close the story through whatever storytelling mechanism fits best.
How the pandemic has changed the demand for virtual influencers? Are businesses more likely to explore this option?
The pandemic has driven our society more heavily onto the internet and digital experiences than ever before, as most people only know one way to spend their downtime: engaging with a screen. As a result, digital experiences have increased in value and digital mediums have become more competitive. In all, virtual influencers have benefitted from the increased digital familiarity and, sometimes, a newfound curiosity about what has the most glance value in tech.
Do any of your characters engage in any political/civic/etc. discussions, or is it just about the lifestyle?
Yes, of course. To live a relevant life is to engage in politics, civics, community, and social life. The goal of most virtual influencers is to tell a life story, and to ignore current events would be a shortcoming of any skilled virtual influencer team—otherwise, you end up with a shell of a human storyline.