There isn’t an industry that will not be disrupted by the advancements in technology. However, few would have guessed that computer generated imagery (CGI) would have a life in the fashion industry. It turns out that like in big budget movies, in the fashion world, everything isn’t always what it seems. Innovators in the fashion world have begun to use computer generated avatars to pose as models on Instagram.
And what did the fashion world think? They couldn’t even tell the difference. Here are a few ways that avatars and technology are completely changing the game when it comes to the fashion industry…
An avatar story that’s almost too frightening to believe
Miquela goes by the Instagram handle “lilmiquela.” She’s 19, stunningly pretty, and like many others has made a career of being an Instagram model. Promoting designer clothing for Prada and doing photo shoots for V Magazine and Highsnobiety, Miquela boasts more than 1 million followers. Other models have seemingly embraced her, with Gigi Hadid tweeting at Miquela last fall saying, “Hey gurrrrl, you’re too major for comprehension.”
Another up and coming Instagram model goes by the name Shudu. She doesn’t have as many followers as Miquela, but her brand was boosted significantly after Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line “reposted a shot of Shudu with striking tangerine lips.” The beautiful South African goddess seems well on her way to becoming a supermodel. And she happens to share something in common with Miquela: they’re both not real.
Miquela was outed in a particularly fascinating way. While many could tell that that she was an avatar, the model refused to confirm it. In an interview, when Miquela was asked directly if she was a real person she responded by saying, “We’re chatting right now, aren’t we?!” As unrest of her identity grew, Miquela’s account was hacked by another avatar/model named Bermuda. Miquela, known for her support of Black Lives Matter and other social causes, was hacked by a pro-Trump avatar that threatened to expose her. The internet did not know what to make of it. Eventually, Miquela revealed to the world that she was in, fact, a computer generated creation. Miquela noted that saying so “didn’t feel right,” as she feels so human. The PR stunt was a massive success as the company behind Bermuda and Miquela raised $6 million in funds from Silicon Valley.
Mysterious owners and creators
While both Miquela and Bermuda’s creators are Brud, an LA-based artificial-intelligence startup founded by recording artist/producer Trevor McFedries, the creator of Shudu has caused far more controversy. Although Miquela’s revelation that she was the product of CGI was surprising for many, it pales in comparison to the reaction when people realized Shudu wasn’t human. The detail and the level of sophistication from her eyes to her nose made it nearly impossible for her followers to tell she wasn’t real. Her creator, a young British photographer named James Wilson, dreamed her up while looking for a creative outlet after moving back home. While first trying his hand at repainting barbie dolls (we know, we know), he was inspired by a Barbie named the Princess of South Africa. Shudu was born.
Wilson spent nearly a decade working on perfecting Shudu before showing her off to the world. After releasing her first picture, he was taken aback at the amount of interest she received. He was bombarded with questions as to her identity, and who she really was. Soon, followers started accusing Wilson, the account holder, of not giving Shudu the credit she deserved. Instead of engaging, he allowed the interest in her to swell and continued to produce pictures of her. She became a real person, in a sense, promoting Fenty products, which gave her an added legitimacy. Soon, people were convinced that she was a real supermodel. That’s when Wilson decided it was enough. He revealed that she was CGI, and that he was her creator.
The backlash was swift. A white man creating a black woman, for profit?
A professor called it “racial plagiarism” and others accused him of exploiting black identity. What his critics failed to realize is that Wilson has not made any money off Shudu. It was a creative endeavor, and he believes it does more to promote diversity than detract from it. He claims he has no interest in taking away work from real models rather celebrate the diversity that we “desperately need.”
Shopping with an avatar
One of the biggest problems for online shoppers is the reality that a clothing item purchased won’t always fit. According to industry research, 62.4 billion of the 1.4 trillion in worldwide sales of footwear and apparel items were returned for improper fit. With the burgeoning technology of true to size avatars, companies believe they can drastically reduce that number. According to Jon Cilley, of Body Labs, with just a “photo and a person’s height and weight, our software constructs a 3D avatar instantaneously.” Cilley goes on to say that even an everyday photo taken from an iPhone could be enough for the AI to accurately predict the 3D body shape. The development of this technology can be a catalyst in additional online sales, as consumers will be less reticent to purchase clothing or apparel that may not fit as intended. Embarrassing questions of weight and figure will be eliminated. All the consumer will need is a photograph.
There are more than a few companies in this space, and each is pushing the envelope forward. Virtual fitting has also become a thing, where avatars with your likeness put on pieces of clothing that the consumer desires. Based on body measurements inputted, the consumer will then be able to not only see how it looks, but where the fit may be too tight (based on tension maps on the avatar). We’re progressing towards a reality where everything can be done from one’s computer.
Avatars taking over the runway
“Our models never get hungry, and never get tired.” That’s essentially what researchers from the UK said when asked about avatars potentially taking the place of supermodels. In a way, one could argue that avatars replacing models could serve a societal function. Models are known for having to maintain a ridiculously strict diet, and the whole industry is viewed as objectifying and degradying by many activists. Still, many women would be out of work if this technology was perfected and implemented.
It’s still far from being perfected, though. The team of researchers have described their work as a three step process. First, they use capture body scanners to record data on body measurements and movements of model – like figures. That data is used, similar to Microsoft Kinect, to create a 3D virtual avatar of the model. The most difficult (and final) step is animating the image. Researchers are still working to make the animations movements instantaneous and capable of performing real-time performances with virtual outfits that they’d need to display. It’s an ambitious project which many are skeptical will be implemented in the near future, but the fashion industry has already seen holograms of famous models projected on the runway. It’s only a matter of time before those holograms become avatars.