Today’s virtual people “have an empty face”, and the technology and content displayed are still far from our imagination.
The virtual people from left to right are Xi Xiaoshi, AYAYI, ALiCE, Reddi
In the photo is a girl with delicate facial features, holding a cat in her arms and looking at the camera with a shallow smile on her face. “
The girl named Imma is active on social platforms, and is no different from ordinary fashion bloggers: she has a beautiful face, wears exquisite makeup, and shares her daily life without worry. Either shopping for afternoon tea, or Hang out at fashion brand events.
The only difference: she’s not human.
“I thought she was going too far, but it turned out to be a virtual person?” Many netizens realized that they were “deceived” after a long time.
Similar to Imma, there are also Anini, Gina, Luna, Reddi, Zero… In 2021, there will be nearly a hundred beautiful virtual people on social platforms. However, due to the different skills and aesthetics of each team, not every virtual person is made to look like a real person. Some avatars still have a strong CG feel to their appearance. “It’s really getting more and more perfunctory”, “The nose is a bit fake”, “I have to say it’s a bit sloppy”… Netizens look at these impersonal virtual people with harsh eyes.
As early as 2018, there has been a trend of making “hyperrealistic virtual people” with real-life textures abroad. In the past two years, stepping on the popularity of the Metaverse, various leading Internet companies have competed to create digital people. Some entertainment companies, MCN agencies, and film and television companies with CG skills have also entered the track.
However, due to the limitation of technical level, the virtual human at this stage is still in the stage of empty face, with unnatural expressions, weak interaction, and lack of personality and works. Many virtual people only have virtual faces. When they need to show body movements, they can only graft their faces onto real images, commonly known as “face swapping”.
“Many companies on the market sell images, but few are involved in technology development. Some teams with technology development capabilities are not necessarily strong in art.” Professor Jin Xiaogang from the State Key Laboratory of CAD&CG at Zhejiang University told us.
The current technology is still unable to support the greater commercial value of virtual humans, but for some virtual human teams that have already invested in production, the most important thing is to create IP and image first, and then talk about it after entering the field. A virtual human practitioner said: “Everyone wants to be a part of the metaverse and find ways to integrate with the concept of the virtual world.”
1 The perfect paper man, lacking a soul
At present, most of the virtual people on the market are young female images, and there are few males. It is the unanimous goal of the producers to make the appearance of the virtual human as top-notch and perfect as possible, and to fit the aesthetic preferences of the young group to the greatest extent.
Hyper-realistic avatar AYAYI
AYAYI, Ling and Xi Xiaoshi with outstanding appearance and realistic production are all representatives of virtual human.Most of these virtual human images created from nothing are drawn from real beauties.
AYAYI’s first public image was circulated on the Internet as “Shenyan ID Photo”. The appearance of this virtual human is so delicate that it is hard to tell whether it is real or fake. AYAYI’s production company, Ranmai Technology, introduced to us that AYAYI’s career plan is to become a digital art curator and a digital trend brand manager. Based on the biography of the characters written by the screenwriter, the team looked for real photos with similar temperament as design references, and after more than 40 revisions, the final design was selected.
Ling, Liu Yemei and Danfengyan who follow the national style route. Chen Yan, CEO of its production company Next World Culture, said in an interview with CHIRON Entertainment that the team disassembled and extracted the facial features of Liu Yifei, Qin Hailu and Zhang Ziyi, and referred to the eyes of Peking Opera actors, and finally created oriental facial features. .
Positioned as the image of female college students, Xi Xiaoshi referred to the images of more than 20 young girls aged 16-18 in the design. Cai Feilong, the production director of Xi Xiaoshi, said that in order to be close to the young people, the team worked hard to make Xi Xiaoshi pure and cute, “because she thinks beautiful women are easy to be accepted.”
These virtual people, which are highly similar to real people, are novel and sci-fi at first glance, but they have a common problem: they stay on the plane like paper people, and they are a bit cold and rigid. Although it is flawless, it always makes people feel that it is “human”.
“Now everyone’s images are basically static, and even if there are some dynamics, they are done in the way of traditional CG special effects movies. This is only a very shallow approach.” Cai Feilong said. “I don’t think this is a digital human. A real digital human needs to operate in the digital world. Most virtual human beings don’t have this ability.”
The Xi Xiaoshi team is a university project consisting of an art team from Zhejiang Media Institute and a computer artificial intelligence team from Xiamen University. Cai Feilong’s team currently does not let Xi Xiaoshi post too much social content, but is training her voice speaking function and developing a facial expression system. He believes that this is the underlying skill that digital people need to accumulate.
Imma from Japan is the first internationally popular CG virtual blogger, launched in 2018. It’s no secret that she has posted many life-like photos of her life, and it’s no secret that the method behind these images is made by transferring a 3D-made head onto a real body and a real background, in short, changing the head.
The virtual human “Hua Zhibing” produced by Tsinghua University once became popular with a video of playing and singing a guitar. Huazhibing’s movements in the video are natural and smooth, which is amazing. However, the production team acknowledged in a subsequent statement that the characters’ limbs and movements were taken from real-life video templates.
“The few photos we are producing now are also face-changing. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. The cost is too high.” Cai Feilong said that the input cost of a digital person is in the millions, especially in the field of art.
A producer who did not want to be named also said: “The avatar pictures of changing heads are relatively easy to achieve from a technical point of view, and it is more about photographic performance. Find a suitable model to shoot, then change heads, and put the avatar P into it. This is not considered virtual human technology in theory, and it has not reached the stage of real development of virtual human.”
Imma life photo
In addition to changing faces, the expression of virtual people is also a problem that is often criticized. Most avatars have a good-looking face and a pair of smiling lips, but their expressions are always the same, always with a slight smile, and they cannot make significant changes.
At present, creating natural expressions for virtual humans is still a big technical problem. A simple action of frowning and pouting affects the change of the entire facial structure. “Our skin has dermis, epidermis, muscle, and fat. It is a very complex system. The computer can only fit it through some parameters, but no matter how it fits, it is always lacking.” Cai Feilong said.
On the other hand, most of the dynamic released by these virtual people are pictures, and there is almost no video.Although virtual bloggers are active on social platforms and greet their fans in an anthropomorphic tone, unappreciative netizens will still point out bluntly: “This is a text from a real editor!” People can’t feel that the virtual person is real alive.
Jesse, the producer of the virtual human Axi, said that applying a virtual human to different scenarios and having different functions, such as operating picture and video materials, facial motion capture interaction, and intelligent capabilities, requires a lot of tools and research and development. a complex process. The digital human is still in the early stage, and different technical process problems need to be solved according to the attributes of each digital human.
Axi produced by Jesse is one of the few virtual people who can produce videos and have vivid expressions. Surprisingly, the avatar of Axi was made by Jesse alone. He is a CG animation director who has been in the industry for more than ten years. He is familiar with the technology of each link, and he is very clear about his production goals. There is no communication cost and testing cost for repeated revisions, so the efficiency is very high.
However, Axi’s appearance has not reached the level of hyper-realism, and still has some animation sense. “You know at first glance that she is not a real person. Her eyes and ears are more cartoonish, but she has skin texture and light and shadow that are close to the real texture.”
Jesse said that if you want to achieve the extreme and high technical parameters of hyper-realism, the process of video production will be very heavy. The reason why Axi has some flaws is to balance the production process and quality. As an individual creator, he has customized a set of processes that are suitable for small scale and best control costs.
A virtual human that is highly realistic in appearance, expression and body movements and can interact with humans in real time is undoubtedly a digital human with soul. Building such a digital human requires the help of artificial intelligence, which is still a frontier problem in the industry.
2 There are brands to pay the bill, but it is difficult to make profits
Although hyper-realistic virtual humans are still in the stage of only images and concepts, there are already a large number of brands willing to pay for them. AYAYI, who takes the fashion icon route, has cooperated with brands such as LV, L’Oreal, and Porsche. Axi has cooperated with Chery Automobile, Jingdong Mobile, Zhongxue and other brands, covering automobile, food, fast-moving consumer goods, accessories and other fields.
What the brand looks at is the trendy and technological sense of virtual people. In the posters and copywriting of each advertisement, there are almost metaverse words: “Explore the infinite metaverse”, “Open the Metaverse together”, “Metaverse VS fashion circle”… Brands in any field are always I want to hook up with the metaverse tag on the avatar.
Another marketing appeal of the company is to highlight the rejuvenation of the brand in order to acquire young customers. Young people will be curious and concerned about virtual people, and women are more likely to be attracted by high-value virtual people. Burning Mai Technology said that more than 70% of AYAYI’s fans are girls, and nearly half of the fans are the 18-24-year-old generation Z crowd. Jesse said that 80% of Axi’s fans are women.
In addition, compared with real stars, virtual people are more controllable, more stable, and less prone to the risk of “collapsed houses”.
Despite the popularity of brands, the commercialization of domestic virtual humans is still relatively immature due to the limitations of content productivity and technology.
At present, the main monetization method of virtual human is to rely on brand advertising cooperation, and the cooperation form is single. Most of the advertisements are presented as a picture, and the sales are still only an image.Unable to interact, difficult to produce films, and limited IP influence, these problems make it difficult for virtual humans to extend more business monetization models.
Cai Feilong revealed that virtual people don’t actually make much money in cooperating with brands. “To make a good commercial, the production cost of at least one million yuan may not be acceptable to advertisers.”
Virtual human needs full-process CG production, and the cost of outputting content is high, which is not a good business.Chen Yan, founder of Next World Culture, once said that at present, more than 90% of virtual human production companies are struggling to make profits.
The bigger challenge is that at present, most hyper-realistic virtual people only have shells and do not have their own personalities, stories, and works. It is difficult for users to empathize, and they cannot continue to attract and retain fans.
As the public feels fatigued by the convergent image of virtual humans and the novelty of the concept of the metaverse fades, the popularity and traffic of virtual humans on the consumer side have continued to decline. Just looking at the meager amount of real user interactions that virtual humans have on social media today is enough to know. Except for a few head avatars that became popular in the early days, it is difficult for other emerging avatars to attract attention and get advertising cooperation opportunities.
Jesse said that at this stage, most virtual people have no real content output, resulting in people’s lack of stickiness and follow-up to virtual people. Many virtual people do not give people the feelings of dependence and liking. In fact, virtual human IP can have infinite charm, which depends on the content.
This can explain why the virtual person Liu Yexi can become an instant hit.
Since the virtual person Liu Yexi’s account was launched on Douyin for more than two months, a total of three short dramas have been released, and the number of fans has rapidly increased to more than 8 million. The video presents film-level scene special effects, creating an ancient cyberpunk style, and the plot combines suspense, reversal and warmth elements. In the video, Liu Yexi appears in the real world as a beauty virtual person who can catch monsters, with a cold and mysterious personality. She can transmit something similar to spiritual power or data to humans, helping humans see the virtual world full of ghosts and ghosts. deceased relatives.
In fact, Liu Yexi is not an intelligent and interactive virtual human in the true sense, but relies on the technology of combining real people with special effects and motion capture in the traditional film and television industry. However, Liu Yexi is one of the few virtual people who creates characters and stories through short videos, and depicts the appearance of the metaverse world, so he has attracted a lot of attention under the east wind of the metaverse.
Liang Zikang, CEO of Liu Yexi’s production company Chuangyi Technology, told us that Liu Yexi’s commercialization will not be limited to traditional brand placement and delivery. “The real manifestation of Liu Yexi’s commercial value may not be in the old battlefield, but in the new battlefield.”
In his opinion, “In the future world of the Metaverse, the boundaries between games, movies, and animation will be blurred, so there is only one connection point called IP. The value chain of IP itself in the Metaverse is very long, and there are many business models.”
The founding team of AYAYI comes from trendy IP and animation content development companies and Internet celebrity incubator MCN institutions, and has incubated Internet celebrities such as Zhu Once and Rou Mian Orange. They also believe that IP operation is the real core moat in the field of hyper-realistic digital people. Initially, it may be possible to attract fans with “showing looks” or “showing skills”, but in the long run, the competition of virtual humans will be a contest of IP operation capabilities.
The technology and content displayed by today’s virtual humans are still far from our imagination. In order for virtual humans to truly come alive in the digital world, there are still several mountains to climb: from advanced appearance to divine resemblance, equipped with artificial intelligence to express emotions, interact with humans naturally, and have their own personalities and stories.
When the virtual human industry technology achieves a qualitative breakthrough, the commercialization of virtual human can usher in a greater imagination space.
3 Enter first
Although the virtual human industry is still in its early stages of development, the market is already hot. In addition to Baidu, NetEase, Tencent and other big Internet companies that are accumulating efforts, some film and television and game companies with CG art capabilities also followed suit.
Director Li Fang is also the one who was forced to pull into this outlet. He just posted a circle of friends mocking the Metaverse, and the next day he was asked by the company’s investors to create an account like Liu Yexi to shoot science fiction short films for the characters.
The announcement was rushed. Investors saw that Chinese Online, an online text company, had caught up with the concept of the Metaverse, and its stock price had soared, so they wanted its subsidiaries to also enter the game. “Even if this is a metaverse bubble, we have to profit from the bubble,” the investor said.
Within two weeks, Li Fang collected dozens of domestic and foreign science fiction films and wrote several stories of virtual people. In the story, virtual people and real humans live together, and after real people die, their consciousness can be uploaded to the cloud and become virtual people. Obviously, these stories written by Li Fang are still far from the current development status of virtual humans.
After the metaverse concept became popular, a large number of virtual people appeared on the Internet. For a while, it seemed that “everything can be a virtual person”. A real person appears on the camera to shoot a video, and the face is changed into a CG character image, or a rough animation character, which can be called a virtual person.
“I have been in this industry for about ten years, and I know many experts in the industry. They also joined the digital human industry when they saw the rise of the digital human industry. They also made excellent CG characters, but they did not improve after they were thrown.” Jesse said, modeling The threshold is low, and there are still quite a lot of talents who can model, but there are still relatively few people who have seriously thought about what a digital human is and how to make a digital human product. Many people follow it completely passively.
Since virtual people can only register image trademarks at present, there is a lack of relevant intellectual property protection mechanisms. If the image is copied and copied, there is no effective way to deal with it, Jesse said.
Burning Mai Technology said that many IPs in the market now call themselves digital people, and the quality is uneven. At present, there are not many teams in the world who have mastered the production technology of hyper-realistic digital people, and the overall production capacity is limited, which cannot meet the production needs from all over the world.
“Ninety percent of teams in the domestic market create images and concepts first.” Cai Feilong said that the threshold for creating a hyper-realistic virtual human is very high, and it requires large capital or a deep accumulation of team technology to do this. “Otherwise, we can only make a shell first and stir up a wave of concepts.”
After communicating with his peers, he found that “everyone wants to stand on the court now and doesn’t want to be left behind, but they can’t see the prospects clearly, and they don’t understand.”
However, Cai Feilong also believes that it is a good thing for everyone to compete on the same track. It is also a way to first promote the concept of virtual human and attract capital attention, and then invest in research and development.
Note: Li Fang is a pseudonym
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