When you try your hardest, you gain a real appreciation for those whose hard work pays off. In the spring of 2020, we at Yle Innovations were inspired by the virtual influencer Lil Miquela and investigated how we could do this ourselves. This is the story of that journey.
Lil Miquela is a digital character, a young woman, with three million followers on Instagram. This is a fraction of the most popular influencers’ follower counts, but Lil Miquela is a pioneer of virtual influencers, which makes her very interesting. She is a skilful creation of technical prowess and storytelling from Brud, a small start-up from California. If you find this subject interesting, you should check out Brud! Brud was recently acquired by another interesting company, Dapper Labs, who use a blockchain to build content. The price of the sale has not been disclosed, but Brud’s value has been estimated to be over one hundred million dollars.
Our interest in Lil Miquela is not about the dollars but her character. We wanted to know what it would be like to create one of these extremely realistic virtual influencers for the YouTube and Twitch platforms. We assumed that people used to video games could find a game-like being to be approachable if it was otherwise believable.
We contacted Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, who train 3D talent for Finland’s domestic game industry. A team of students accepted our challenge in summer 2020 and began to develop a virtual influencer, who was later named Wiley. The name Wiley came from a student team at Aalto University who were conducting a more holistic study of virtual influencers for us – valuable help in charting a new area with business implications.
Virtual influencers are 3D characters, and 3D graphics are highly technical. A lot of time was spent by the Metropolia student team on making the facial expressions look realistic. The human face is a complex biological structure, and expressions like smiling affect the whole face in different ways. A digital face will not mimic what happens under a human’s skin very accurately. Other, technical means are used instead to painstakingly tweak details one by one to achieve similar results. In addition to an expressive face, the team also focused on creating realistic skin and hair.
Wiley became quite believable over the summer and easy to bond with emotionally. The project continued in the autumn – it was time to bring Wiley to life.
A digital character's face is animated by scanning an actor’s face with a camera. In the field of facial motion capture, the Dynamixyz software has long been a front runner, and so Wiley’s face was given life by a tool that is much too expensive for individual makers. We opted not to attempt body motion capture, as we were simply after a talking head. Lil Miquela is a full-body influencer, and bodies do have expressive power, but we were interested in the familiar shot of an upper body in a chair known to many from game streaming and teleconferencing.
The student project ended after half a year, and we concluded that it was too difficult to make our own hyperreal virtual influencer. It only took a week from the project’s final meeting for Epic Games to shake the world with their MetaHuman Creator. I was granted access to the tool late in spring, and without any skills in 3D creation, I had – in principle – made a character like Wiley in just a matter of minutes. It was lacking all artistic touch-up that would deepen its character, which the free version would not allow.
In short, “MetaHumans” are easily created virtual people with natural and expressive faces. They can be controlled in many ways, including the free LiveLink Face software, which is in all but name a total replacement for the costly Dynamixyz program. The said software uses the iPhone’s LIDAR functionality, which Apple added to its phones some years ago to enable unlocking by face scan. Technology is developing across a wide front, and everything impacts everything else!
What even a media company found exceedingly difficult became easy to do for anyone overnight. Sure, other similar free or budget-friendly tools do exist, but MetaHuman Creator will really turn heads among media industry observers towards game engines. Epic Games made their fortune with the Fortnite video game, and they have bought and funded other tools for creating hyperreal virtual things.
It has been eighteen months since Lil Miquela appeared on our radar. We have been observing from the sidelines and dreaming of an angle for Wiley to provide for Yle's content needs. What has actually happened is that our radar picked up another virtual influencer: Myrsky. Thanks to the effort we had to make, we can really appreciate those of Myrsky’s creators! You know who you are, here is your trophy: 🏆
Myrsky is created by MIELI Suomen Mielenterveys ry featuring many of the things we considered in our work. During our journey with Wiley, we also collaborated with a LUT University student team in a project that came close: Could a virtual person be more approachable for young people in difficult personal questions regarding mental health?
Yle Innovations is holding the Blow Your Mind seminar on 5 November to discuss synthetic media. In addition to virtual people, the media industry is starting to see synthetic people based on artificial intelligence. Reserve your place to the event!