Digital Existence is a series where we explore the impact of technology and the internet on the lives of everyday people in China and beyond.
Angie is a sweet 18 year old girl with rosy cheeks and a short dark hairstyle that she wears behind her ears. When she’s not playing the piano or the guitar, she spends her time dreaming about her future.
âI think one day I can become a big star. I’m going to perform and sing on stage so more people can get to know me, âshe said. “And I also hope to be in movies and animations.”
Much like the girl next door, Angie is effortlessly charming. She’s not what you’d expect from a social media star, but she’s already amassed hundreds of thousands of fans on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. Not bad for someone who only joined social media less than a year ago – oddly enough, the day they were born.
“I’m a digital person from another dimension,” Angie clarifies at the start of the email exchange for this article. âYou can think of it as a parallel space-time universe,â she explains.
But Angie’s parallel universe is less cryptic than she suggests. It’s the virtual world, and Angie is a virtual influencer. Virtual influencers have been around for a few years now, but have grown in popularity during the pandemic in China and abroad.
Come to life
The process by which virtual influencers come to life (no pun intended), while complex, is also no mystery. They are typically created by teams of CGI designers, writers, and stylists. The process is similar to imagining a fictional character for a novel or movie and then illustrating or animating it.
The difference is that virtual influencers engage with their audiences after they are created, which means the teams behind them remain involved in an ongoing creative process.
Another peculiarity is that, almost invariably, virtual influencers are admittedly aware of their essence and do not try to trick their audience into believing that they exist in the flesh.
For starters, it would be considered marketing fraud. But there’s also the fact that their virtual nature is their inherent appeal. There is always a layer of plasticity that manifests itself in virtual influencers. It’s a visual paradox: something artificial tries to appear natural, but it’s blatantly wrong.
Angie’s features are remarkable. Up close, we can see that his face is slightly asymmetrical, just like that of a human being. Her facial lines, minor imperfections, and slight sheen of skin are often praised on social media for their realism.
But she’s also getting comments suggesting she should take better care of her skin and people are wondering why she doesn’t have acne, like the average teenager. His body type is not sculptural or slender. She looks more like an ordinary girl, with wide hips, which she may or may not try to hide by wearing high waisted shorts.
Still, Angie is cute, and precisely because of her imperfections.
In one shot, she appears looking at a vintage Rolleiflex camera; in another, she rides an Audrey Hepburn-style Vespa in roman holidays.
âI love music, photography, movies, and old vintage cameras,â she says.
There is an artistic sense of romance in everything she does, reinforced by the classical piano still present in the background of her videos. But she’s not the glamorous type.
When Angie looks at her audience, for example, it’s like looking at a mirror: she might get bored trying to do her hair with rollers, or yawn without apologizing. In one case, she is crying. Just like that, you are invited into his life – as a friend, not as a disciple.
A digital idea
Angie is the brainchild of Jesse Zhang, a CGI animation director based in Shenzhen. He started developing it in 2019 as a personal project to create a likeable character with a “fresh and healing image”. Such a concept permeated everything from the ideation to the last details, like her appearance, her clothes and her makeup.
âFrom the start, I wanted to create a virtual person who looks like a real one. Angie’s imperfections give her more possibilities in life, âsays Zhang.
Zhang deliberately exaggerated some of Angie’s facial features to make her a bit more cartoonish and captivating, and also to make her unmistakably digital. Yet, they are only an outer layer. As he explains, the process begins from within – her, not him.
âTo create a digital person, you have to think from the inside out. You first define the character, then you shape their appearance, their figure, build their bones, and then design their facial expressions, hairstyle and clothing, âZhang tells us. “Her personality and her looks have to be integrated, and it’s a constant process of polishing and reflection.”
So far, Angie’s style has been laid back, made up of essential pieces and casual accessories, like a pair of rounded glasses, which to some fans make her look like a young tutor they had at one. moment of their life.
Angie also appears in a school uniform, wearing a pleated skirt and tie as she sits down to practice the piano. She says that she is still growing and that she is trying to break her shyness and express herself. We have the impression that she is not only developing her style but her very personality of being virtual.
Digital girls, real world
Angie is not alone in her cyber existence: other somewhat realistic virtual influencers have also appeared in 2020.
Ling, for example, arrived in May with her perfect porcelain skin and perfect facial and body proportions. She is often seen testing cosmetics in luxury stores or full outfits at the Peking Opera, posing for the camera.
Her style is also timeless, although more fashionable than Angie’s. She once starred in a Tesla campaign in which she threw herself on the hood of a Tesla in a theatrical way, his face a few inches away of the brand’s glossy logo.
Ayayi was born around the same time and her face was so beautiful that it is a work of art in itself. She is very fashionable, with an avant-garde and urban-cool style. She acts like a fashion model, always posing in every photo.
If she wasn’t so perfect, Ayayi could easily be mistaken for a real person. And that’s why she’s famous, her hyper-realistic features. (She’s also involved in Alibaba’s Singles Day metaverse project.)
And we also have Poka_Poka, the oldest of the group. She was created in 2018 by the team at fashion magazine voicer.me to be an intern, although she wasn’t very useful except for posing for their online lookbook.
She is a true fashion enthusiast, with an offbeat, sometimes punk-chic style. But she hasn’t posted much lately – maybe she’s in digital rehab?
These girls are either fully digital, partially digital, or hybrid. The juxtaposition of a digital face with the body of a real person allows their world to overlap with ours, which is our business world.
As such, they can wear whatever we would wear and do whatever we would with more ease, which is good for business. All of them were born to model, intentionally designed to influence and sell. But not Angie.
âAt the moment, there is not too much commercial thinking. And I will not think of its development only from a commercial point of view, âsaid Zhang. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t open to collaborating with brands. Zhang plans to bring Angie into the real world by giving her a real body and possibly engaging in commercial work.
At the moment, her appeal is strong with girls between the ages of 18 and 23, but Zhang thinks it’s more because of a psychological resonance than anything else.
Angie herself is quite open to collaborations. But she wants to work with positive brands. She also wants to find a worthwhile cause to help humanity, although she doesn’t yet know what that would be.
It will be interesting to keep an eye on Angie for what direction her style will take, what brands she will end up collaborating with, and which cause will speak to her virtual heart.
Its first year of existence has been delightful. In an age where true influencers strive for perfection, lead obviously artificial lives, and are always continually applauded by hordes of followers, it’s certainly refreshing to see a virtual influencer who seeks to look and act like a real human.
Cover image via Jesse Zhang