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Technology

14 December

Can Virtual Humans Provide Real Connection?

WRITTEN BY MediaMonks

They’re on social feeds, collaborating with fashion brands and dabbling in politics. They’re starring in movies and performing for sold-out audiences. They’re live streaming on YouTube. And while you sit down to talk to one, they may be talking to dozens—if not hundreds or thousands—of other people at the same time.

They’re like people, but they’re not: they’re digital humans, and they may transform the way we think about how we connect to brands, each other and our own selves. “Digital humans” is a broad term that includes any realistic digital representation of a human, fictional or otherwise. That can include digital body doubles (like CGI actors), fictional CGI influencers, chatbots with bodies, 3D avatars and more. And while they can elicit excitement or unease—the uncanny valley continues to be a concern as technologies evolve—they have the power to connect people in unique ways.

Bringing Communities Together

One of the most appealing things about digital humans is that they can fulfill a sense of connection. Virtual influencers like Lil Miquela may feel like a novelty at first, but they’ve also built real communities around shared values and aesthetics. Hatsune Miku, the virtual Japanese pop idol, is essentially a crowdsourced brand: her songs, costumes and music videos are shaped by a community of creative, dedicated and collaborative fans. Both characters rose to prominence because digital audiences felt empowered to connect with them—and similarly, Riot Games created Seraphine, a digital influencer who appears in the massively popular game League of Legends, as a steward of the game’s community.

"Those kinds of virtual humans are selling feelings and experiences."

Geert Eichhorn

Director of Innovation, MediaMonks

“Those kinds of virtual humans are selling feelings and experiences,” says Geert Eichhorn, Director of Innovation at MediaMonks. And that ability to create meaningful exchanges is what makes digital humans attractive to brands—for example, giving a branded chatbot a face. Text-based chatbots are ubiquitous on websites and apps all over, but businesses like Uneeq and Soul Machines have developed incredibly realistic, animated digital humans that engage with customers both online and within physical locations, like at a lobby’s check-in desk. Unlike their faceless chatbot counterparts, digital humans are able to communicate through body language and nonverbal cues—like eye contact—eliciting stronger emotional responses in people and enabling more meaningful experiences.

Enabling Self-Expression in New Ways

More than just fictional conversation partners or branded virtual assistants, the “virtual human” category can also include avatars controlled by humans, and this is where Eichhorn sees great potential for the tech: fulfilling people’s desire to better represent themselves as they spend increasing amounts of time online. “Avatars are really about self-expression,” says Eichhorn. “Maybe it helps you express the gender identity that you identify with, for example. In that way, avatars can be very liberating.”

On Fortnite, the massively popular online game developed by Epic Games, players have the chance to become some of their favorite characters—or even real-world people, like Travis Scott, Major Lazer and esports star Ninja—and these avatars have played a big part in shaping perception that the platform is more than just a game, but a virtual social world in its own right.

"Maybe avatars help you express the gender identity that you identify with. They can be very liberating."

Geert Eichhorn

Director of Innovation, MediaMonks

On that note, Eichhorn believes the next big social platform could be based around avatars that connect across digital experiences—a bit like how Bitmoji not only connects to social apps, but also video games to let people play as cartoonish, 3D representations of themselves. “Think of an API connected to platforms like Fortnite, or retailers that let you try on and fit clothing on a body double,” says Eichhorn. “I see there being some kind of overarching platform that could integrate it into everything else.”

Ethical Considerations for Building Virtual Humans

Avatars and digital doubles could certainly be useful for shopping and socializing, as discussed above—but they also invite ethical considerations to keep in mind. Deceased celebrities have returned to screens as CGI actors or hologram performers, and the creation of digital doubles may call into question who owns the likeness and what they’re authorized to do with them.

Conversations around ethics haven’t kept up with the pace of the technology’s evolution. “There are some whitepapers from 2012 or 2014 on how to deal with the ethics of avatars, but they’re already so outdated,” says Eichhorn. “There isn’t really a common ground on this yet.”

Regardless, he and other Monks have already explored these questions when collaborating with Standard Chartered and Liverpool FC to celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of Bob Paisley, the club’s legendary manager. In a series of meticulously created films and an AR experience, fans got the rare chance to engage directly with Paisley once again. “Our first consideration was if we could make the experience something genuine,” says Eichhorn. “We got the blessing of the Paisley family and brought them onboard as stakeholders to discuss any concerns of theirs before the project even began, ensuring everything was done responsibly.”

As for virtual influencers, brands can look forward to a more diverse cast of characters who embrace imperfection. “The time for innovation has come,” says Maddies Raedts, Founder and CCO of IMA, our influencer activation team. “Audiences are less interested in picture-perfect content and increasingly looking for self-acceptance. For this reason, a new wave of virtual influencers is yet to come, to embrace inclusivity and diversity to its full potential.”

Throughout the past year, people have come to rely on digital more than ever, whether socializing in video games, shopping more online or even working in VR. As we grow more accustomed to these virtual environments, the presence of virtual humans may only become more ubiquitous. From activating communities and enabling self-expression like never before, “this technology will affect culture and society by changing our idea of what being human means,” says Eichhorn.

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