Forever young, beautiful and free of scandal: the rise of South Korea’s virtual influencers

She has over 130,000 followers on Instagram, where she posts pictures of her globetrotting adventures. Her makeup is always impeccable, her clothes looking straight off the runway. She sings, dances and models – and none of it is real.

Rosie is a South Korean “virtual influencer”, a digitally rendered human so realistic that she is often mistaken for flesh and blood.

“are you a real person?” One of her Instagram fans asks. “Are you an AI? Or a robot?”

According to The Seoul-based company that created her, Rosie, is a mix of all three that span the real and virtual worlds.

Sidus Studio X states on its website, “He is capable of doing everything that humans cannot… in the most human form possible.”

This includes generating profits for the company in the multibillion-dollar advertising and entertainment worlds.

Since her launch in 2020, Rosie has bagged brand deals and sponsorships, strutted the runway at virtual fashion shows and even released two singles.

And she’s not alone.

The “virtual human” industry is booming, and with it a whole new economy in which the influencers of the future never get old, free of scams and digitally flawless – something for some in a country already plagued by unattainable beauty standards. Beach sparking alarm.

how virtual influencers work

The CGI (computer generated imagery) technology behind Rozy is not new. It is ubiquitous in today’s entertainment industry, where artists use it to craft realistic nonhuman characters in movies, computer games, and music videos.

But it has only recently been used to make impressive.

Sometimes, Sidus creates an image of Rosie from head to toe using the Studio X technique, an approach that works well for her Instagram images. Other times it rests its head on a human model’s body – for example, when she makes clothes.

An image of Lucy, a Korean virtual human, used by Lotte Home Shopping.

An image of Lucy, a Korean virtual human, used by Lotte Home Shopping. Credit: Courtesy Lotte Home Shopping

South Korean retail brand Lotte Home Shopping built its virtual influencer — Lucy, who has 78,000 Instagram followers — with software typically used for video games.

Like their real-life counterparts, virtual influencers build a following through social media, where they post snapshots of their “life” and interact with their fans. Rosie’s account shows her “travelling” to Singapore and enjoying a glass of wine on the terrace while her fans praise her outfit.

older generation The thought of interacting with an artificial person can be somewhat strange. But experts say virtual influencers have struck a chord with young Koreans, Digital natives who spend most of their lives online.

Lee Na-kyung, 23, who lives in Incheon, began following Rosie about two years ago, thinking she was a real person.

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Rosie followed her back, occasionally commenting on her posts, and a virtual friendship blossomed—one that lasted long after Lee learned the truth.

“We communicated like friends and I felt comfortable with him – so I consider him not as an AI, but a real friend,” Lee said.

“I love Rosie’s stuff,” Lee said. “She’s so beautiful I can’t believe she’s an AI.”

a profitable business

Social media not only enables virtual influencers to build a fan base – this is where the money rolls in.

sustenance For example, Instagram is full of sponsored content, where it advertises skincare and fashion products.

“Many big companies in Korea want to use Rosie as a model,” said Baek Seung-yup, CEO of Sidus Studio X. Just with Rosie.”

He noted that as Rosie became more popular, the company received more sponsorships from luxury brands such as Chanel and Hermes, as well as from magazines and other media companies. Its advertisements have now started appearing on television and even in offline places such as billboards and sides of buses.

Lotte expects similar profits this year from Lucy, according to Lee Bo-hyun, director of Lotte Home Shopping’s media business division, who has brought in advertising offers from financial and construction companies.

Experts say that the models are in great demand as they help the brand reach out to young consumers. Rosie’s clients include a life insurance firm and a bank — companies that are generally seen as old-fashioned. “But they say that after working with Rosie, her image has become much smaller,” Back said.

It also helps that, compared to some of their real-life counterparts, these new stars are low-maintenance.

Lotte and Sidus Studio X takes between a few hours And for a few days to create an image of your stars, and from two days to a few weeks for a video ad. It’s a lot less time and labor than it needs To produce a commercial—featuring real humans—where weeks or months could be spent creating and creating logistics such as lighting, hair and makeup, styling, catering and post-production editing.

And, perhaps just as important: Virtual influencers never age, tire or invite controversy.

Lotte decided on a virtual influencer while considering how to maximize her “show hosts,” Lee said.

Lotte Home Shopping hires human hosts to advertise products on TVs — but they’re “quite expensive” and “will change as we age,” Lee said. So, they came up with Lucy, who is “forever 29 years old.”

“Lucy is not limited by time or space,” he said. “She can appear anywhere. And there are No moral issue.”

a question about beauty

South Korea isn’t the only place to adopt virtual influencers.

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Among the world’s most famous virtual influencers is Lil Miquela, an American tech startup created by co-founders who has endorsed brands including Calvin Klein and Prada and has over 3 million Instagram followers; Lu of Magallu, created by a Brazilian retail company with nearly 6 million Instagram followers; and FNMeka, a rapper created by the music company Factory New, who has over 10 million TikTok followers.

But according to Professor Lee Eun-hee from Inha University’s Department of Consumer Science, there is a big difference: Virtual influencers in other countries reflect a diversity of ethnic backgrounds and beauty ideals.

Elsewhere, “virtual humans have “uniqueness” in them,” he said, while “in Korea they are always made beautiful and beautiful … (reflect) the values ​​of each country.”

An image of virtual influencer Rosie developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea.

An image of virtual influencer Rosie developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea. Credit: Sidus Studio X

And in South Korea—often called the “plastic surgery capital of the world” for its booming $10.7 billion industry—there are concerns that virtual influencers could further promote unrealistic beauty standards.
Young Koreans have begun to resist these ideals. In recent years, sparks a movement in 2018 dubbed “avoiding corsets.”

But the country has narrow views of what is popularly considered beautiful; For women, this usually means a beautiful figure with big eyes, a small face and pale, clear skin.

And these features are shared by the majority of virtual influencers in the country; Lucy has exquisite skin, long shiny hair, a slender jaw and an attractive nose. Rosie has full lips, long legs and a flat stomach that is peeking out under her crop tops.

Lee Eun-hee warns that virtual influencers like Rosie and Lucy could make Korea’s already demanding beauty standards even more unattainable – and increase demand for plastic surgery or cosmetic products among women who emulate them .

“Real women want to be like them, and men want to date guys like them,” she said.

An image of Lucy, a Korean virtual human, used by Lotte Home Shopping.

An image of Lucy, a Korean virtual human, used by Lotte Home Shopping. Credit: Courtesy Lotte Home Shopping

The creators of Rosie and Lucy reject such criticism.

Lotte’s representative Lee Bo-hyun said that he tried to make Lucy more than just a “beautiful image” by crafting an elaborate back story and personality. She studied industrial design, and works in car design. She posts about her job and interests, such as her love for animals and kimbap – rice rolls wrapped in seaweed. In this way, “Lucy is trying to make a good impression in society,” Lee said, “she is sending the message to the public, ‘Do what you want to do according to your beliefs.'”

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Back, CEO of Sidus Studio X, said that Rosie is not what “anyone would call beautiful” and that the firm had deliberately tried to make her appearance unique and away from traditional Korean norms. He pointed to the freckles on her cheeks and her wide eyes.

“Rosie shows people the importance of inner confidence,” he said. “There are other virtual human beings who are so beautiful… but I created Rosie to show that you can still be beautiful (even without a traditionally attractive face).”

‘Digital blackface’

But the concerns go beyond Korean beauty standards. Elsewhere in the world there is debate about the ethics of marketing products to consumers who do not understand that models are not human, as well as Risk of cultural appropriation when creating influencers of different races – labeled by some as “digital blackface”.

Facebook and Instagram’s parent company Meta, which has more than 200 virtual influencers on its platform, acknowledged the risks.

“Like any disruptive technology, synthetic media has the potential for both good and harm. Issues of representation, cultural appropriation and freedom of expression are already a growing concern,” the company said in a blog post.

“To help brands navigate the ethical dilemmas of this emerging medium and avoid the potential dangers,[META]is working with partners to develop an ethical framework to guide the use of[virtual influencers]To be.”

But one thing appears clear: The industry is here to stay. As interest in the digital world grows – from the metaverse and virtual reality technologies to digital currencies – companies say Virtual Influencers are the next frontier.
An image of virtual influencer Rosie developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea.

An image of virtual influencer Rosie developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea. Credit: Sidus Studio X

Lotte is hoping that Lucy will move from advertising to entertainment, perhaps by appearing in a television drama. The firm is also working on a virtual human that will appeal to buyers in their 40s to 60s.

Sidus Studio X also has bigger ambitions; Rosie will launch its own cosmetics brand, as well as an NFT (fungible token), in August, and the firm hopes to form a virtual pop trio to take on the music charts.

Back explains that most fans don’t meet real celebrities in person, only see them on screen. So “there’s not a big difference between virtual humans and the real-life celebrities they like,” he said.

“We want to change the way people think about virtual humans,” Back said. “What we do is not to take away people’s jobs, but to do things that humans can’t, like work 24 hours a day or create unique stuff like walking in the sky.