“Digital humans” have arrived, and they aren’t going anywhere. Forecasts of a future where we’ll live in the metaverse with our data-selves may not come to fruition, but digital humans are clearly having an early and swift cultural impact.
Virtual recording artist Hatsune Miku sells out every concert. Virtual Instagram influencer Lil Miquela boasts millions of followers. We see that fans have no problem anthropomorphizing digital humans in general, accepted because they dwell in the digitized world where their unique appearance is forgiven. Lil Miquela for the most part lives on Instagram, only making very infrequent short videos and commercials. It’s much easier for her to live in a 2D world where she’s not moving or talking, than on film, because facial and body rigging is an arduous process. Every software handles rigging differently; there are currently no technical standards for this process, and as a result, creators must achieve high levels of perfection or they risk furthering the degree of the “uncanny valley” effect.
That said, the future is bright for the capabilities of digital humans. Imagine someone who has the power to employ a digitized version of themself. They can sit in one room and interact with audiences in the digital world – or occupy the real world from elsewhere – while using a highly-accurate photorealistic avatar. Actors can save these versions of themselves, conceivably for their lifetime and beyond. A good example is the heiress Paris Hilton. Her devoted audience still imagines her as the young woman who starred in “The Simple Life” and expects her to look and act 21, even though she’s much older now. To aid their mental picture, she has created a 3D scan of herself, performed concerts and interacted with fans in virtual reality as her digital younger double. If you own your virtual likeness, you can monetize digital versions of yourself.
Look at the recent unveiling of Cyberpunk 2077, when Keanu Reeves’ character was revealed as his digital self. Theoretically, Keanu can keep monetizing his digital version in different media formats. These advances are similar to the digital make-up techniques used in VFX, where you can be modified digitally by artists that rejuvenate and de-age actors and actresses, giving audiences the illusion of being younger than they really are.
Part avatar, part hologram, these digital human replicas deliver a future free from the very human constraints of aging, location and time, thanks to the latest tech advancements. Despite these technological leaps, however, the uncanny valley effect they create won’t be resolved anytime soon. Of course, technology will continue to get better, cheaper and faster. With real-time ray tracing, digital humans will become more photorealistic. Eventually we may leave the uncanny valley behind altogether, but the technology still has a long way to go to get there.
I envision a world where individuals can buy online digital humans, in low or high resolutions, for use in gaming, entertainment, or creating film shorts and immersive experiences. They would be rigged and ready to be mocapped and puppeteered by an actual human. For this vision to become reality, we require easily accessible machine learning and facial capture technology. Right now, excellent facial capture is expensive and 1-to-1 facial performances difficult to achieve, but rather than frustrate our advancements, the popularity of facial capture should be enough of a motivator to double down and improve the tech. The more we advance real-time production technologies as an industry, the closer we come to interacting with and utilizing digital humans for all kinds of applications.
Mariana Acuña Acosta is a technologist, pixel pusher and entrepreneur. During her years working at Foundry, she focused on virtual reality post-production workflows, as well as being the head of creatives in the Americas. Most recently she co-founded Glassbox Technologies, where she leads the roadmap for new and existing technology, developing tools for virtual production using VR to transform the way filmmaking is done today.