Already Internet Celebs, Virtual Beings Get First Emmy Nod

Fable Studio’s “Wolves in the Walls,” a VR adaptation of a Neil Gaiman children’s book, won a Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding innovation in interactive media. The player is in the role of an imaginary friend for the CG child Lucy and uses VR goggles and handheld motion controllers to join her on an investigation of strange noises in the house. Lucy is also the first “virtual being” to win an Emmy, according to Fable co-founder Edward Saatchi, who defines that as a digital character with whom you have a two-way relationship. Virtual beings are growing in popularity on social platforms such as Instagram, where some are becoming digital influencers.

Bloomberg reports that “while there is nothing yet that fully meets the standard, a number of companies have sprung up with attempts ranging from computer-generated (CG) Instagram influencers to chatbots and AI-powered digital companions.” Saatchi said his company’s Emmy win “should really help in Hollywood, get people thinking that maybe we should put a virtual being in a movie or have a virtual being singer.”

MIT Sloan School of Management professor in information technology/marketing Sinan Aral said that “virtual beings” are “a real thing — for sure.” “This market is being made now,” he added.

Most of the virtual beings are on Instagram where “even a modest social media following can be converted into income, because brands will pay for ads that come with a personal touch.” Brands use these digital influencers to have flexibility and “message control … without the messiness of dealing with real personalities.” Paris-based agency creative director Sara Menouni noted that “because it is so blatantly a creation, the question of authenticity is moot.’’

Lil Miquela (below), who has 1.6 million followers, is “the most famous among Instagram’s virtual beings,” and she has inspired copycats such as “Shudu, created by a former fashion photographer, [who] bills itself as the world’s first digital supermodel.”

KFC even created a “suave virtual version of Colonel Sanders,” and many virtual beings come from Japan such as “pink-haired Imma, a computer-generated face composited onto a photo of a real human model,” and “Saya, a virtual schoolgirl that debuted in 2015.”

Saatchi noted that “progress in making more believable virtual beings is a measure of how good the tech is getting, and there is a convergence of technologies under way … [including] advances in natural language processing, machine vision and real-time computer rendering.”

The technologies are “still in their early stages and adopting them too soon risks breaking the spell,” which is why “most CG influencers stick to still photos.” But fans are “surprisingly forgiving” if their favorite CG influencer falls into the uncanny valley. “I want to see them grow and change,” said one. “If anything, that part is fun — you get to look forward to seeing what they can become … the incompleteness is attractive.”

Development of “Wolves in the Walls” began when the Fable team was employed by Facebook as part of its now shuttered production unit, Oculus Story Studio. More information on the project can be found on the Fable Studio site.