Entertainment In an era of virtual socialising, get ready for virtual influencers
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By now most of us are familiar with the wonders and dangers of influencers. From opaque marketing deals to photo editing to very selective sharing, these online celebrities aren't always exactly the people they appear to be. But in modern online social spaces like those hosted on Roblox, it's increasingly possible the person your kids are looking up to isn't actually a person at all - at least in the traditional sense.
Meet Kai and her friends, virtual influencers who might give us an early peek at the world of celebrity and brand advocacy in a future where we get our online social fix by hanging out in shared spaces as characters of our own choosing, rather than by scrolling through Instagram.
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If you're not familiar with Roblox, it's a social platform where millions of people — overwhelmingly tweens and teenagers — meet online to hang out and play. There are thousands of games and experiences, which you could think of as virtual destinations you and your friends can zip to in an instant — that can be created by anyone and vary enormously.
Splash is one such game; a place where players get on stage to perform music live using powerful AI-synthesised DJ tools, while others dance or watch. The biggest stars on Splash need to have musical talent, but style is just as important; you can deploy special effects from the stage that change the venue's lighting, or launch all audience members into the air for some gravity-free grooving.
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It's the most popular music destination on Roblox, with 130 million plays and a total of 7.5 million live performances so far. And it's where you'll find Kai.
With bleached hair, rainbow leggings and a red cheetah-print jacket, Kai looks fairly innocuous within the bombastic world of Roblox. But when she gets on stage, thousands of players come to watch. She's mobbed whenever she visits clubs that other players have created, has millions of views for her music videos on YouTube, and is fiercely defended by fans.
But while she's often referred to as an artist or creative, in truth Kai is an avatar for an amalgam of people, her music and videos professionally produced and her appearances strictly managed. She began as a simple stand-in to represent the Splash developers as creator of the game, but has since become its most prominent star and attraction.
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"She's developed this life. We're not sure what she is. She puts on a concert and 150,000 people show up, the players just adore her. It's Beatles-type stuff," says Splash chief executive Stephen Phillips, a Brisbane-based AI engineer who previously worked at Twitter and develops music tools through machine learning.
"She's kind of a mascot but she's not. She is the dev team but she's also the community. She's an aspirational goal of what the kids want to be. An artist, a programmer. I think that somehow she's part of a narrative in their heads about the evolution of the game and their love for the game."
When Splash announced it was expanding its music creation tools to allow for bands to perform together, fans immediately began to ask who would be joining Kai on stage. So the company is this weekend introducing two new virtual influencers — Milo and River — to fill those roles.
In a sense there's not much different about a virtual celebrity or virtual influencer compared to traditional ones. Just like any popular singer in the real world, Kai has writers and performers backing her up, as well as a manager and communications people. Far from being a robot or AI, she sings songs and plays music written by real people, and her speech is synthesised from text, using AI models trained on an actor's voice. In YouTube videos she's a computer-generated image mapped to a real person using motion capture.
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But while Kai and friends are— many exist on Instagram, TikTok and elsewhere as computer-generated characters — they do represent a way forward for brands and marketers in the so-called metaverse. While an audience views a traditional influencer through images or videos, a virtual influencer can inhabit the same spaces as the audience themselves, which makes them all the more relatable.
In Kai's case that means the audience might be inspired to spend more time (and Robux, virtual currency you buy with real money) getting good at Splash. But virtual influencers could conceivably be used to promote anything, from virtual goods available within a platform to political views.
Roblox has announced its intention to introduce many brands into its ecosystem as it matures the platform, and Phillips says the operation of more and more virtual influencers in the space is inevitable.
"The fact that Roblox is so social is a huge change. There's an undercurrent of games that are just hanging out with people, just experiencing things with people. Most of the time the kids in our servers are just vibing. So I think the brands arriving and creating experiences, it's just a no- brainer," he says.
But given how much choice the audience has, how many new experiences are being created on the platform every day, and how difficult it is to do direct messaging on Roblox given the platform's very strong privacy controls, success for these brand influencers is not guaranteed.
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A combination of local fringe voices and international influencers are developing and spreading misinformation.The eldest, wedged between others in the middle of the couch, speaks briefly but generally about a need for unity and sovereignty. The next speakers are more specific: they rail against lockdowns (“corporate tyranny government”) and claim that COVID-19 vaccination programs are genocide.
"I think a lot of them will try to do it and miss," Phillips says. "If we had tried to create Kai as a corporate mascot, it would have been rejected."
Part of the reason Kai has been so successful is that she's inexorably tied to a high-quality experience the audience enjoys. Attempts to introduce content from mainstream celebrities and influencers into Splash have had mixed results because fans go there to play music live or watch others do the same. When big names show up with what amounts to a YouTube video of pre-recorded music, it doesn't hold the audience's attention.
Chris Barter, co-founder of King River Capital, says Splash showed how entertainment industries were going to work in the metaverse. The entire economy and culture that allows for influencers and commerce are created organically by the players, using tools that the platform provides, but they have to be brought there in the first place by something authentically engaging.
"We invested in Splash because we believed Stephen and his team had built the world's leading AI music tools. You can compose a track in 15 minutes that sounds like you've heard it on Triple J this morning," he says.
"But what really got use over the line is how do you use those tools? How do you monetise them? Gamification. If you give [the audience] the tools, and you have the best tools in the world, you're going to scale your growth way faster than anyone else."
Splash's recent Series A funding round raised $27 million, with investment from Amazon's Alexa Fund as well as King River Capital and others.
"These kids are the pioneers into what's coming next. And we will follow," Barter says.
Phillips says that although players may be inspired by Kai to want to get better and create their own music and their own clubs, it's those user creations that will be the future of Splash.
"Our top players get [treated like royalty] just like Kai. They feel like celebrities and they work very hard to get that," he says.
"They're all little marketers and brand people. The smart ones quickly realise there's a chance to be famous here. And it doesn't take much for kids to chase fame when there's a chance to do it."
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