May 30, 2022
BEIJING – Virtual people are characters developed with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) that bear close resemblance to humans but are powered by advanced animation technology. Virtual idols, teachers, customer assistants and other characters are increasingly becoming a part of real life.
The term virtual people is typically used by graphic designers modeling the virtual human body or by computer scientists to signify chatbots equipped with graphic representation of a 3-dimensional human body. The term is also used by researchers in the fields of human-human and human-robot interaction for intelligent virtual agents.
Virtual people have been injecting new vitality into industries such as e-commerce, media, finance, education, tourism and manufacturing along with metaverse, a virtual-augmented space, and the development of technologies such as virtual reality, AI, 5G, image synthesis and digital twin.
Basically, virtual characters can be divided into two categories: computer-generated animated images created without real-life reference substance, such as virtual beauty vlogger Liu Yexi on Douyin, the Chinese video-sharing social network on which TikTok is based, and other virtual influencers; and virtual characters that assume the roles of real-life characters in a fictional setting.
The expressions of the characters in the games have improved thanks to the development of 3D and other advanced technology. And virtual livestreamers have become popular on online platforms because they fit the imagination of many netizens and promote products through online concerts, short videos and other activities, just like big celebrities hired for commercials do. Also, virtual livestreamers can process and transform thousands, if not millions, of consumers’ behaviors into direct data.
Virtual livestreamers can livestream independently, or with the help of real-life assistants who among other things need to display the products in front of the camera. A virtual influencer can also co-host a campaign with a human anchor, or just appear for a short time as a guest to introduce some intellectual property-related products.
These developments have prompted some netizens to wonder whether virtual livestreamers will ultimately replace their human counterparts.
The fact is, virtual livestreamers and real-life livestreamers both have their advantages and disadvantages.
An obvious advantage of virtual livestreamers is that they can frequently change their style and thus offer fresh experience to consumers. And unlike real people, they don’t quit their job or report sick, can be present 24×7 on multiple sites to reduce the stress of human co-hosts, and don’t make mistakes or have human failings.
But it is not possible for all companies to use virtual people because of their exorbitant cost. A company needs to spend millions of yuan and more than three months to create an ordinary virtual character.
Besides, although virtual livestreamers can mimic the actions of a real person, their facial expressions and body movements are usually unnatural. They are unable to interact with real-life people like real-life celebrities and, given their mechanical response, cannot adapt to fast-paced, highly interactive livestreams.
Users expect a lot from virtual livestreamers because of their flawless faces. But customers may not trust the products they endorse due to their robotic perfection. So the challenge for virtual character developers is to strike a balance between perfection and relatability.
Fortunately, virtual livestreaming industrial chains have begun to take shape in China, with content suppliers positioned upstream, creators of virtual characters and technology supporters such as computer animation and extended reality companies based midstream, and user－and professional-generated content platforms and multi-channel networks located downstream.
True, figure creators are more concerned about how to reduce costs, raise productivity and improve the ability of content incubation and commercialization, but the virtual livestreaming industry is evolving and growing fast. The total size of the country’s virtual people market is forecast to reach 270 billion yuan ($40.47 billion) by 2030, according to an industry report released by Qbit-AI, an industry service platform focusing on AI and cutting-edge technology.
The revenue generated by virtual people equipped with specific characteristics including those of virtual celebrities is likely to reach 175 billion yuan by 2030, while revenue from service-oriented virtual humans may cross 95 billion yuan, the report said. And human livestreamers are likely to benefit from, instead of being replaced by, their virtual counterparts which in the future may start livestreaming in metaverse.
Yet China’s virtual livestreaming industry is still in a nascent stage with some bottlenecks hindering the large-scale application of digital avatars. The consumer market is thriving, but the technology is relatively weak and turning it into a profitable business is difficult.
So, all parts of the industry chains need to function well, creators of digital characters have to clear the tech bottlenecks and reduce costs while the operation sector needs to optimize the business model under a close-loop system to facilitate the rapid development of the sector and inject fresh impetus into the economy.
The author is a senior engineer at Informatization and Industrialization Integration Research Institute, China Academy of Information and Communications Technology. The views don’t necessarily reflect those of China Daily.