The Lucrative Rise of the Virtual Influencer

Digital Instagrammers like Liam Nikuro and Lil Miquela present a unique opportunity to brands: they can be completely and utterly controlled.
May 29, 2020, 10:10am
liam nikuro aoi prism virtual influencers
Left: @liam_nikuro, right: @aoiprism

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

While Japan is on lockdown, Liam Nikuro is posting to his Instagram feed.

Propped up against the arcade game Samurai Spirit, the fresh-faced influencer appears to be out and about in Tokyo's Shibuya district. "Need one of these games at home during this quarantine #stayhome," reads the caption. There might be some outrage from Liam's 14,500 followers that he's flouting the quarantine rules, were it not for the fact the 21-year-old isn't really there. Not only is he not there, he doesn't exist at all.

Liam, Japan's first male virtual influencer, is a product of 1Sec, a company founded in January of 2019. His posts can be traced back to the fourth floor of the Higashiyama Oriental building in Tokyo's residential district, Meguro. Inside the 1Sec premises, it looks like a classic start-up: a small office containing a young skeleton staff, mostly in their twenties, leaning back precariously on their chairs while ambient instrumental hip-hop plays out through speakers.

It's 6PM when I visit, and while the light outside has faded, the team are still discussing a proposed female version of Liam. "What are some names that sound both Japanese and English?" a voice ponders from across the room.

I'm led to the five-person "Virtual Human Production" team, who explain the tech. In basic terms, Liam is the result of designers rendering artificial 3D images of top of real models.

"First, we take a picture using a 360 camera, and replicate environment and render an image," says Ayami Tomio, 1sec's Digital CG artist. "I put the real model into a 3D forming software called Maya, and Nuke, a compositing software." Tomio clicks the screen and a human face morphs into a hyper-real digital reconstruction. "That is where I will add every strand of hair, then I put the face on top of the model's face, then upload."

It's this forensic level of attention to detail that makes Liam so successful. He could, if you were scrolling quickly through your timeline, pass as a real human – and if he evokes a sense of familiarity that you can't quite articulate, that's on purpose.

The 1sec team asked 30 men and women – from teens to people in their late thirties – questions like, "Which celebrity do you find most attractive?" Liam's face is a composite of the answers. "Based on what we heard, we gave him a similar face shape to Justin Bieber and added BTS features into him," says 25-year-old Grace Kwak, a bright Tokyo local who works on the marketing team. "Japan is becoming very global."

After some trial and error involving a few poorly-received hair choices, including a "blue afro" ("People did not like that," Tomio murmurs), the team settled on his current icy-blonde mane, which has proved popular and led to a spike in engagement.

The idea of Liam representing a new Japan might be a PR spin too far, but in a world locked down in isolation, his ability to travel freely across the globe – to meet Post Malone and visit studios in LA (he's releasing music soon) – is aspirational in a way that his creators could never have imagined a year ago. The banal is now made uniquely tantalising. Case in point: a video that shows him drinking alone in a teahouse – an activity that's currently out of reach to us mere mortals – is met with a flurry of flame emojis in the comments.

The virtual influencer (VI) industry is growing in Japan, thanks to the success of one of the first Japanese VIs, "Imma". Created by CG company Modeling Café in 2018, Imma boasts a 176,000-strong Instagram following and a number of brand partnerships. Others include Saya, a kawaii schoolgirl who was creepily often called "Japan's daughter", and Harajuku girl Aoi Prism, whose visual identity is informed by the fluorescent digital aesthetic of Akihabara's anime district.

Outside of Japan, there is of course the VI musician Lil Miquela. Created in Los Angeles in 2016 by Trevor McFedries and Sara DeCou, the "19-year-old" is perhaps the best example of a crossover star in the space, with over 2 million Instagram followers and partnerships with brands like Calvin Klein and Samsung.

The VI industry provides a uniquely interesting opportunity for advertisers. Unlike real-life influencers, who come with the baggage of human autonomy, virtual influencers can be directly controlled: captions, poses and environments are all decided upon by the teams who produce them. While it's too early to tell how lucrative the virtual influencer industry could become, globally, the influencer market is a billion dollar industry, with Business Insider recently predicting it could rise to $15 billion in the next couple of years.

Liam is small-scale by comparison, with room to grow and the right people to get him to where he needs to be. 1sec was started by entrepreneur Hirokuni Miyaji, whose previous marketing company oversaw a roster of 3,000 (real) Japanese influencers. "He realised that he ran into so many problems, so he [thought], 'Why not create my own virtual human who isn't going to ditch work or cause scandals," laughs Kwak.

The scandal currently on clients' minds is that of the Japanese actress Erika Sawajiri, whose entire career was effectively cancelled when she was convicted this February of possessing of a small amount of MDMA and LSD. "When we talk to companies, the first thing they say is, 'Oh great, they're not going to get arrested for drugs,'" says Kwak. "It's a big worry they have right now."

Liam is about as far from scandalous as you could get – he would never even smoke, Tomio assures me. But this sanitisation hasn't done much to harm his sex appeal with fans.

Antonia Hamilton is a professor of social neuroscience at University College London, whose work explores the idea of desire towards fictional characters. She makes the point that characters we know aren't real have always been capable of eliciting an emotional response, using video games as one example.

"Just as fans will like pictures of Harry Potter, or kids will queue up to meet a person dressed as Peppa Pig at the shops, so people will like and go to see these virtual people," she continues. "I'm sure there are plenty of cases where a virtual interaction can induce an emotional response."

The concept of the "uncanny valley", coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori in the 1970s, describes how 3D animations that reproduce human-like qualities imperfectly can result in a feeling of unease from viewers – meaning designers need to get the balance just right. So unlike that human in a Peppa Pig costume, it might make more sense – as Hamilton suggests in our conversation – to allow these characters to remain fictional, rather than trying to recreate them in some kind of physical form.

In a hotel room overlooking the Tokyo skyline, I direct message one of Liam's biggest fans, 20-year-old Ariel from Brazil, who has commented under the arcade machine post. Using Google Translate we bond over our fascination with Liam. Ariel writes a long message about Liam's hair colour and how cool he is, how he feels like a friend, before signing off with a jolt of joy: "I've been feeling very lonely, he is an escape… he can go anywhere. It makes me happy!"

It's an interesting concept, how a reproduction of a human being, designed to exploit what might be seen as the most vacuous traits of the influencer – hawking products and lifestyles to young fans – can have such an impact. More interesting, perhaps, is to consider how a post-Covid world will view aspirational lifestyles. Could we see these safer, scandal-free marketing vehicles gain popularity amid a recession? Does it make fiscal sense to replace human influencers, unable to luxuriate in free flights and hair maintenance, with Liams and Immas? Will anyone even want to buy fast fashion?

As the public experiences influencer fatigue, the idea of these unreal lifestyles being lived by unreal humans might make for a kind of poetic justice. For now, as images of death tolls permeate our consciousness, there may be some strange peace in the notion of a faraway friend inherently unable to be a victim of the pandemic.

That said, while Liam provides a brief respite for some, a world in which more and more human connection is automated and monetised might not be one we should be so keenly rushing towards. Later, as I mull over the ethics of characters compiled by marketing algorithms and trend data, I look at Liam's profile and see that Ariel has posted a heart emoji under his most recent post, which he swiftly likes, and can't help of think of her reaction: a brief moment of connection as the entire world isolates.

It's an exchange that makes me feel warm, despite myself. Here's hoping the good feelings last.

@kieran_yates