Polar, the New “Digital Influencer”
What is a digital influencer? Essentially, a digital influencer is the colorful wrapper of an influencer minus the inside, an image composed by a team of people that have created a face instead of being hired by one. Digital influencers are the natural outcome of an industry that rewards aesthetics over humanity. The few in existence right now are everything good about humans without anything bad – their creators don’t have to worry about them getting bloated or sunburnt before a photo shoot, they don’t have to worry about an unmistakably bad video of them resurfacing, and they don’t have to worry about paying the influencer, either. All the money goes to the management team. They’re a blatant attempt to unseat real humans in favor of digital puppets.
While theoretically, if done right, they’re just another way to advertise things, they so often veer into bizarre Black Mirror-esque decisions that they’ve earned a bad reputation as a whole. For example, Lil Miquela, a digital influencer who came forward as a victim of SA. That’s not something that can happen to a completely digital creation, and it was rightly called out for the clout-chasing and uncomfortable short-cut to humanity it was trying to be. If this were a traditional work of fiction, that wouldn’t have been a problem, but this bizarro world where everyone is pretending Miquela is real made many feel like this was purely a publicity stunt poorly disguised as a #MeToo post.
Polar, the newest addition, is a Metaverse darling created by the same company known for hack channels such as 123Go! And 5 Minute Crafts. She sings, just like Lil Miquela, and just like Lil Miquela, the fact that she’s “not real” but is totally still writing her own posts and stuff is a bigger draw than the actual music is. (To be clear, these things aren’t AI with enough autonomy to post or write songs themselves – real people behind the scenes are responsible for every action they take, even if the voices are synthesized from a program. They don’t have open access to the ‘net.) I’m not saying they don’t have legit fans, but the novelty has drawn more streams and clicks than the music they were releasing before they “came out” as digital beings. The song Polar sings in her most recent video advertising herself for Gen Z has four times the streams of anything else she’s sung so far (as of now, August 2022).
Polar can dance in music videos too, but her dance moves are not exactly adjusted for her cartoonish proportions. As a result, there’s a lot of swaying and undulating moves that attempt to make her dances more alluring in spite of her tiny arms and disproportionately large head. It’s not unlike watching a Monster High doll try to dance. Regular cartoons and 3-D animations adjust real life dance moves to feel more natural all the time – why aren’t Polar’s creators doing that? You’d expect a metaverse pop star, who only exists digitally, to be able to do anything that could be shown on a screen, and she just doesn’t. Her owners could make her shoot fireworks from her hands, let her fly into the air over the crowd like P!nk does but without the trapeze, let her do something cool. Anything cool! Something to justify her existence over regular indie pop stars who actually exist and who actually hold concerts. Animated music videos already exist, so it’s truly puzzling why hers look so… bland. And Metaverse-y.
MetaVerse Can’t Keep Up
Although, the tech they’re using probably has a lot to do with it. Polar came from a 3-D video game, and her creators want to some day port her into places like the Metaverse, or even real life as a hologram (note this for later).
Polar’s design is littered with animation shortcuts when you take a closer look at her. She doesn’t have a visible mouth (it’s hidden by a mask) and her outfits are either skintight against her body or move stiffly – nothing except for her hair has any sort of flexibility to it. This makes rendering a video of her moving easier on everyone because flexible 3-D objects have to be treated carefully so they don’t ‘break’. By making her outfits skintight or cardboard, they save themselves time. By hiding her mouth, they don’t have to animate it.
But 2nd Life exists, and Lil Miquela looks alright on Instagram even as quickly as that team posts, so how does Polar look this much worse? Firstly, Polar content where she’s moving on screen is coming out constantly, and they have to prove she works and is easier to use than a real person. Secondly, the places she appears have to be able to load her and play her pre-recorded 3-D model without starts or stutters, which also encourages less detail and less physics-reactive clothing in her wardrobe. Thirdly, she’s intended to perform in the Metaverse, which is already being heavily criticized for looking the way it does when it dares to call itself a pinnacle of innovation. She has to match the details of the places she’s performing – “Paris” in the Metaverse looks absolutely ridiculous, and so she can’t be this photorealistic doll like Lil Miquela standing in front of a low-poly Eiffel Tower. Her music videos featuring real people show how goofy that looks.
The cool things you can do in VR aren’t being played up, and the stuff you can do already – like paying for concerts and watching them with real people around you – are, for some reason, a selling point for tech that’s not as visually interesting as real life is and so should be leaning into the fantasy aspects VR is so good for.
Hatsune Miku, and Vocaloids
The polar opposite of this whole thing is Vocaloid concerts. The way I got the news that Polar existed was by a video on TikTok comparing Polar to Hatsune Miku, a beloved internet pop star who also isn’t real: she’s a Vocaloid! Vocaloids are used like instruments to add vocals to tracks, and they come in varying levels of human-like sound. The older programs sound clearly robotic and inhuman, but the newer ones can sound just like a real person, so long as the person making music with them has them tuned up right. Vocaloids also come with faces – the original company that made them illustrated what each voice looked like. Essentially, they produced a character that other people can use in their projects as a plug-and-play lead singer. Instead of all for one, like Polar, Vocaloids are one for all.
The fact that they’re non-exclusive to any one platform or group (within reason, you have to buy a software kit to use them) counts for a lot in a world constantly trying to produce things like Polar. Most of the vocaloids have a fanbase, and they almost universally have downloadable models that can be dressed up. Fanart is everywhere. Figurines and posters abound. Music videos for the songs made using the programs often feature the vocaloids themselves dancing in 3-D space.
But the credit still goes to the person who wrote the song. There is no pretense that Hatsune Miku is not a work of fiction, that she’s writing her own posts or that she’s not digital. The community at large is not pretending she wrote the songs she sings. She’s a mascot, not a digital influencer, and that has made her much more likeable. Even better, she does occasionally appear IRL, which Polar’s team doesn’t seem to realize their target audience has already seen. Hatsune Miku has concerts where she’s projected onto a see-through screen that allows her to move in three dimensions as a two dimensional object. When people show up to these concerts, they know they’re showing up to watch a recorded light show, but they’re going to a real stadium surrounded by other real people to do it, not sequestered into their own separate bubbles of the Metaverse. Despite the older tech and more analog approach to entertaining people, Hatsune Miku’s completely different outlook on what a digital singing mascot should look like makes her more likeable, more entertaining, and more relatable than a managed team focusing on sellability of a fake personality could ever be. She’s crowdsourced – Polar is not.