Miquela is the future of the entertainment industry, but she raises big and important questions
Background informationRoboticsComputingSmartphone

Miquela is the future of the entertainment industry, but she raises big and important questions

Dominik Bärlocher
Zurich, on 13.05.2020

Miquela Sousa doesn’t exist. Miquela Sousa has a career in music, an Instagram following and a YouTube Vlog. The virtual star is now under contract with a Hollywood agency. It’s time that we as a society asked ourselves some questions about virtual stars. And about what it means to be human.

Miquela sometimes calls herself Li'l Miquela. She’s an influencer with 2.2 million followers. Miquela once portrayed a couple who refer to themselves as magicians. She had a photo of her aura taken by them. She sings.

Miquela doesn't exist.

She’s a computer-generated character who’s just secured a contract with the talent agency Creative Artists Agency, better known as CAA. CAA is set to market Miquela across all media channels – from television to film appearances to commercials and whatever else Miquela's creators and CAA can think of. Miquela, who was named one of the most influential people on the Internet 2018 by Time Magazine, is flexible when it comes to these things.

The «life» of this virtual superstar

Miquela first made a public appearance in 2016. Without further explanation, she started posting pictures on Instagram. In the following years, she evolved from an online oddity to a multimedia phenomenon. A virtual character who openly talks about not being real and calls herself a «change-seeking robot».

Miquela has worked with Samsung and describes herself as a member of #teamGalaxy. Ironically, all her mirror selfies were shot with an iPhone 11.

A tech company called Brud, with just a Google Doc for an official website, is behind Miquela. Brud describes itself as a «transmedial studio that focuses on digital, character-driven storytelling». In practice, this means that Brud creates animated characters and develops the technology in the background.

I think it’s safe to assume that Miquela is a mix of animation and motion capture. When she interacts with the real world – with the magicians' candle or the like – this was probably done by an actress with a build similar to Miquela’s. In other words, it was the actress who lit the candle. And it’s an actress who hugs people or picks up physical objects. The animators at Brud then take this type of footage and replace the actress with Miquela.

  • Background information

    Uncanny Valley: Wenn dich computeranimierte Fratzen in deine Alpträume verfolgen

On other occasions, Miquela is purely computer animated. That’s when she steps into Uncanny Valley; meaning, her movements are anatomically correct for a human, but they still look wrong. Even when she’s complaining about her make-up and sweaty forehead. Next up, she talks about feeling hurt by somebody tweeting «Imagine meeting someone who isn’t real».

Miquela’s not the only project that Brud have unleashed. They also spawned Bermuda and Blawko. The two of them used to be an item; their break-up was painful. There was lots of digital drama surrounding these three.

On a narrative level, Miquela is entering unknown territory. Although the band Gorillaz, founded in 1998, were also virtual, they were only present in their own virtual world apart from a few exceptions. It wasn’t until band member Noodle became the ambassador for the Panasonic Jaguar Racing Team that the young lady also caused a stir outside of the band’s virtual bubble. This makes Noodle one of the very few exceptions that managed to tear down the wall between the virtual world and the real world. And it wasn’t even weird.

Miquela, on the other hand, is going down the YouTube route. Her reality within our reality is not unique, but it’s staged to the max. Her creators are open about this and even turned it into an element of her story. This becomes apparent when the virtual singer speaks about her best party trick: being able to use her voice in a way no human being can because she’s a robot. She takes this as an opportunity to question her musical style.

And it’s this contradiction between «I’m not real» and «My eyeliner’s smudged because I’ve been crying so much» that makes Miquela’s digital life fascinating.

Are digital stars the future?

Computer animation keeps getting better. However, there’s still one major obstacle to be overcome. The computing time required to animate. Elements such as hair or skin, but mainly details including freckles and pores, are complex and time-consuming to simulate and render.

To give you an example, raise your hand to your face and have a look at it in bright light. Then take a look at the back of your hand. Have a close look at the pores and lines. Now clench your hand into a fist. See how everything changes? And how the pores stretch and the muscle strands and tendons move under your skin? Or how the light moves across the surface of your skin and reflects back in a reddish tone? Animating that is complex. Your fist alone would already require motion capture. Reproducing the incredibly detailed texture in a way that looks like your real skin when you’re clenching your fist is a huge task for a computer.

However, if you could use a real actress and simply replace her face, you could save an incredible amount of time and computing power. In other words, this would be a way to generate content much faster and in better quality.

That’s the case for Miquela. So who’s the actress behind this virtual celebrity? We don’t know. The word on the street last year was that Emily Bador plays Miquela because she looks a lot like her.

And this is what makes virtual stars attractive. They’re available at very short notice and deliver consistent quality. Shooting a movie? Not a problem. Somebody slips into Miquela’s motion-capture suit, Miquela’s virtual model is rendered overnight and the scene’s good to go the following morning.

Miquela’s up for anything.

Miquela never gets sick. She doesn’t age. Doesn’t need breaks. She fits into every item of clothing or costume and performs any stunt, no matter how impossible. She has no airs and no moods. Well, except for those that her programmers want her to have. And she delivers those flawlessly.

Miquela is the perfect performer.

We need a framework

Hollywood’s already taken up the issue. «The Congress», released in 2013, tells the story of how a fictional version of the actress Robin Wright is digitised.

The realistic implications of this scenario are wonderful and horrifying at the same time. For example, the scanned person can be used for pornography – even without her consent. Technology tends to be available to everyone sooner or later. A motion designer for New York Magazine managed to recreate an impressively accurate version of Miquela in 48 hours. He’d be free to do whatever he wanted to with his recreation.

It would be foolish to believe that there will never be abuse of the situation. Guaranteed there’s Miquela porn out there. After all, Rule 34 is a reality.

Let’s assume there’s somebody out there making Miquela porn. Or, less extreme, creating a video of her that doesn’t fit into the creators’ storyline. No big deal, right? The worst thing that could happen is a court case for copyright infringement and somebody having to pay a fine. Remember, Miquela doesn’t exist. She’s a product without feelings or dignity.

Things become trickier if you’re dealing with a case like the one in the movie «The Congress». If a real actress were digitised and videos with her virtual version started to pop up, you’re not only looking at copyright infringement but also at issues regarding human dignity. This is where we’re on thin ice.

We need a legal framework to regulate the use of such models, should such scenarios start occurring. However, a legislation would mean a clash between individuality, the free development of one’s own personality and the law. So generally speaking, prohibiting pornography involving virtual models, whether real or fake, for the protection of personal rights is not feasible. All it takes is a quick look at a fashion model directory to see where personal limits lie – and we’re not talking pornography.

Let’s take a look at an example: Ivonne is okay with having nude photos taken of her. Dana, on the other hand, is not. And it’s still a long way from nude pictures to porn. But a virtual model of Dana could easily be rendered naked into a photo. Would Dana mind? Ivonne might not be particularly bothered by it, but Dana’s dignity would be violated. A law that forbids nude photos is not feasible because Ivonne might not like that.

And what does this all mean when it comes to Miquela?

Technologically speaking, both Miquela’s model and those of a real person are identical. Therefore, it would be wrong to say: «Who cares? It’s only a computer creation». Then again, each person’s individual definition of their own dignity should not be touched either. We don’t need a moral police force; historically speaking, that idea tends to backfire. The definition of a person’s dignity should definitely remain with each individual. With the exception of the protection of minors and the protection of those who cannot protect themselves, that is.

There’s an interesting side note to add to this whole train of thought. If we granted the virtual model of a real person a dignity that is untouchable, this raises the question: do virtual stars have a dignity? If so, who defines it? The authors of Miquela’s life?

I’m afraid I don’t have the answers to these questions. I’d like to solve this problem right here, but it seems impossible. Therefore, I’d like this article to be food for thought. Where do you draw the line? Maybe you have a solution?

That’s all for today. By the way, Miquela’s ringtone is the communicator jingle from «Kim Possible».

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Journalist. Author. Hacker. A storyteller searching for boundaries, secrets and taboos – putting the world to paper. Not because I can but because I can’t not.

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