The “soul extractor”, as the workers at A-fun Interactive call it, is a small white room. In the centre is a stool surrounded by a metal frame dotted with more than 40 digital cameras. I picked my way gingerly over a tangle of cables and took a seat. A few moments later there was a countdown and then the sound of shutters clacking.

By the time I got up and walked to the control room a few metres away, I could already see myself partially rendered on a screen. Within a few minutes there I was, in excruciating detail. The technician zoomed in and you could see the cracks on my lips. You could see the hairs I thought I’d shaved that morning.

A-fun Interactive is located in an office building in a commercial district in Seoul, South Korea. I came to visit because its state of the art 3D rendering technology is being used to power a fast-expanding universe of digital celebrities: computer-generated models, pop stars and influencers who are gaining an unlikely foothold in the real world.

The most famous of them have won millions of social-media followers, collaborated with brands, produced their own merchandise and forged careers in singing and political activism. Some look like cartoon characters while others — the next generation — could almost pass for human beings.

These digital celebrities are only the most visible aspect of a growing trend. As the technologies behind them become cheaper and more accessible, you might find yourself listening to music released by a digital avatar, interacting with one in a convenience store or dealing with them in your workplace. Soon, you may even have one of your own.

The A-fun office has the frenetic energy of a start-up; the company is in the process of putting together a team in Los Angeles. On the lower floor people sit beneath large screens working on 3D models; the other floor holds the soul extractor, and a control room looking out over a slime-green-coloured motion capture room. On one screen in the control room, the rendering of my face stared blankly at me. Alongside it on the other monitor was a rendering of Apoki, a digital celebrity that A-fun has built.

Apoki looks like a Korean Jessica Rabbit. She has bunny ears, an improbably pinched waist and flawless skin. She is at one end of the avatar spectrum, designed to look like an anime character. On the screen, Apoki was in a TV studio, having a conversation in real time with Jaewook Park, a specialist in 3D organic modelling who works at the company. At that moment I could look up and see him standing alone in the motion capture room; on screen, he and Apoki looked as if they were having an involved conversation.

Barclay Bram as avatar at A-fun Interactive in Seoul, South Korea credit Barclay Bram
Apoki, a 'virtual celebrity', and an avatar version of Barclay Bram . . .
3D rendering technology A-Fun Interactive Seoul South Korea credit Barclay Bram
. . . created by Seoul company A-fun Interactive using 3D rendering technology (credit: Barclay Bram)

According to Kevin Allocca, head of culture and trends at YouTube, there were as of May “more than 5,000 channels self-describing as ‘virtual youtubers’ and videos from these channels had garnered more than a billion views”. Views of these channels have grown by 50 per cent compared with the same month in 2018. The Japanese virtual celebrity Kizuna Ai went from having some 200,000 subscribers on YouTube in December 2017 to more than 2m today. As they amass fans, some virtual celebrities are emerging into the real world. Next year Hatsune Miku, a 16-year-old virtual pop star — or, more precisely, a piece of voice synthesising software developed by Crypton Future Media — will go on a global tour, appearing to her fans as a hologram.

On Instagram, virtual influencers have been trending for the past two years. The fashion house Balmain has deployed virtual models created exclusively for the brand in their campaigns — including Shudu, designed to appear of African descent and roundly criticised for taking lucrative modelling jobs from real black women. In Brazil, the virtual influencer Lu, who has 1.7m subscribers on YouTube, appears in ads for homeware brand Magazine Luiza and makes sassy comments about the patriarchy. Barbie has had her own YouTube channel since 2005 and an Instagram account since 2014, and KFC recently animated the Colonel.

The most famous and lucrative virtual influencer of them all is @lilmiquela, who has more than 1.8m followers on Instagram — less than the following of real celebrities such as pop star Taylor Swift (123m followers), but nearly double that of, say, would-be Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.

She’s designed to look racially ambiguous, has freckles and fly-aways from her twin hair buns, and regularly poses alongside real-life celebrities. She also has a fledgling music career, making catchy dance-inflected pop, and has won promotional deals with streetwear and luxury fashion brands. The LA-based company that built her, Brud media, recently closed an investment round led by Spark Capital that values it at $125m, according to TechCrunch.

Lil Miquela sits for magazine interviews in which she explores her role as a non-human digital projection. “My identity is complicated, because it was chosen for me,” she said in an interview with the fashion magazine CR. She “came out” as a robot in 2018. But this doesn’t stop her being vocal about progressive issues. She posts about Black Lives Matter and identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community — a recent post promoting a pottery studio in LA thanked them “for creating an amazing space where queer kids like myself can feel welcome”. During the California wildfires in the summer of 2017, she sold “Uncanny Valley Girl” T-shirts online to raise funds for the firefighters.

A quick flick through the comments under any of Miquela’s photos shows that to her fans, her immateriality is itself immaterial. “oHHHHHHHHHH MY God ur so pretty” reads one comment under her pottery post. Another reads, “when you’ve been doing pottery for a year and still can’t make it as smooth as Miquela”. Miquela responds to a comment asking if she’s “really queer” by saying, “I love who I love <heart emoji>”. When the designer Elizabeth Hilfiger came across Miquela’s account and heard she was a fan she sent her clothes, assuming she was a real person.

The creator of virtual model Shudu has been criticised for taking lucrative modelling jobs from real black women
Lilmiquela instagram post
An Instagram post by virtual influencer Lil Miquela, who has 1.8m followers on the site

People follow digital celebrities for many of the same reasons they follow real celebrities: they buy into the narrative behind them or enjoy the aesthetic of the digital celebrity on their feed. For millennials and younger cohorts who have grown up online, digital celebrities are hardly less “real” than the influencers they find on Instagram. In a world of half-truths, filters and sponsored content, their explicit inauthenticity may even be refreshing.

For their creators, investing in a digital celebrity is significantly easier than trying to launch the career of an actual celebrity. Digital celebrities don’t have expensive tastes, they don’t burn out and they don’t let fame go to their head. In Korea, this is especially pertinent. This year, several of the country’s clean-cut K-pop stars have been embroiled in scandals. Two of the most famous were last month sentenced to prison for gang rape, while others have been implicated in crimes ranging from embezzlement to drug dealing.

From a branding perspective, a digital celebrity is a safe bet. “Think of it as a digital puppet,” says DK Kwon, the chief executive and founder of A-fun. “It won’t get old; it won’t do drugs. No scandal.” He leans back in his chair. “It stays permanently under the control of my company.”

It sounds like a dystopian dream — but the idea of replacing humans with virtual marionettes may have wider applications still. In a glass-walled conference room, Kwon tells me about the plans the company has to expand beyond digital celebrities. The technology, he notes, would work well in the service industry. “Imagine walking into a McDonald’s and interacting with Ronald McDonald himself,” he says.

McDonald’s has already announced that by 2020 all US locations will have self-ordering kiosks, so it’s not hard to imagine that the stuffy interface will soon be replaced by a digital avatar of Ronald himself. A-fun is partnering with a large Korean conglomerate to roll out 3D avatars in their convenience stores in the coming years.

On social media, people are not just following digital celebrities, they are creating their own 3D selves. The Korean avatar creation app Zepeto is one of the most popular around the world. The app asks users to upload a photo and then creates an avatar character directly based on their features. The style and general premise are similar to Apple’s “memojis”, but Zepeto creates an entire world for you to explore as your avatar. I customised my Zepeto with a pair of boots, some black jeans and a simple black T-shirt. It cost me £0.99 to pay for light-coloured eyes for him. In a meta twist, while the app invited me to create an avatar by taking a photo of my face, an in-app tool lets me take a selfie in which my avatar now replaces my face.

Some of the most popular Zepetos have spawned their own followings on Instagram and other social media platforms. A recent Instagram post from Zepeto’s official account, which has 1.4m followers, featured a picture of a woman in a crimson red hijab, a black top and a red and black skirt that fell all the way to the sand on a beach next to her avatar, who was dressed in a black V-neck and a very short skirt. They both smiled at the camera, holding up a peace sign.

Avatars will also be used for the next generation of online conferencing. Spatial allows users to create an avatar to beam into digital meeting rooms. The technology runs on augmented reality headsets and is already being used by the Ford Motor Company. Facebook, with its Codec Avatars project, is also betting on a future of communication powered by digital avatars and augmented reality: it hopes to create lifelike avatars that can “perfectly capture a wry smile or a furrowed brow”, with the aim of “helping social connections in virtual reality become as natural and common as those in the real world”.

As we interact more and more with digital avatars, we arrive at what Matt Hartman, a partner at the VC fund Betaworks, which is currently investing in synthetic media and digital influencers, has referred to as “an authenticity awareness gap”. As he notes in an essay posted to Medium, while we are increasingly interacting with synthetic media — be it A-fun-style avatars or the complex online forgeries known as “deepfakes” — “it’s unclear that individuals and media outlets are prepared to be sufficiently sceptical of the content they come across, share and endorse as authentic.”

Some may be unnerved by the hyperreality of interacting with digital simulacrums. But they bring to the fore the question of authenticity. Is ordering from a smiling avatar of Ronald McDonald any less “real” than interacting with the forced smiles of an underpaid and overworked service worker?

The willingness to follow virtual celebrities may not be that surprising either. Jerry Stafford, a veteran creative director, notes that contemporary celebrity is already strikingly artificial, its unattainable perfection achieved by plastic surgery, Instagram filters and Photoshop tweaking. “Considering that celebrity has always been about the projection of fantasy and desire on to the other,” says Stafford, “it makes sense that virtual celebrities would be the logical evolution of fame in an aspirational consumer society.”

Hatsune Miku concert
Hatsune Miku, a 16-year-old virtual pop star, appears in hologram form for a live concert
Attendees hold hand lights as they listen to musicians perform on a stage during the Hatsune Miku Magical Mirai 2017 event at the Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba, Japan, on Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. Since its creation 10 years ago, Hatsune Miku character has built a global fan base through brand online media, brand tie-ups and live concerts. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg
Fans at a Hatsune Miku concert in Japan in September 2017 © Bloomberg

The processes that have made celebrities interchangeable with avatars are not exclusive to them. Instagram filters have led to the rise of “Instagram face”, as people try to look more like their filtered selves.

“Cosmetics brands have also produced make-up products specifically to mimic the effects of light filtration that are hard to achieve in variable three-dimensional ways on a face moving through space,” says Dr Lily Chumley, an associate professor in NYU’s Media Studies centre. As Stafford notes, “we used to project our aspirations on to celebrities, but maybe in the future we will end up projecting on to our own avatars.”

Maybe once we all have digital avatars the pressure will be taken off us to heavily curate our own lives for social media. We can send out our blemish-free avatar in designer clothes (the newly launched app Ada lets you purchase virtual outfits from brands including Dior, Gucci, Prada, Armani, Balmain and Miu Miu) and let it do the peacocking for us. But this liberation may further constrain our willingness to be seen, in the flesh, as our imperfect selves.

A week after my visit to A-fun, I was in Shanghai for the ecommerce giant Alibaba’s Tmall Collections fashion show, live-streamed to 87m viewers. They had invited the digital avatar Luo Tianyi, who has previously been accompanied on stage by the concert pianist Lang Lang, to perform. From the stands I watched 10 dancers twirl around an empty space. Those who watched the livestream at home would have seen the space filled by the avatar, the dancers interacting in time to her movements. The experience was optimised for the screen; for the live audience something was, literally, missing.

In the car on the way home I turned on a VPN and opened Instagram. Lil Miquela was sitting in a bra and underwear and had written a long post to support the Women’s Cancer Research Fund. That she had no cells or body didn’t seem to matter. As a harbinger of our blended future, her influence is already spreading.

Barclay Bram was shortlisted for the 2019 Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize

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