BEIJING — From customer service to the entertainment industry, businesses in China are paying big bucks for virtual employees.
Tech company Baidu said the number of virtual people projects it’s worked on for clients has doubled since last year, with a wide price range of as little as $2,800 to a whopping $14,300 per year.
Virtual people are a combination of animation, sound tech and machine learning that create digitized human beings who can sing and even interact on a livestream. While these digital beings have appeared on the fringes of the U.S. internet, they’ve been popping up more and more in China’s cyberspace.
Some buyers of virtual people include financial services companies, local tourism boards and state media, said Li Shiyan, who heads Baidu’s virtual people and robotics business.
As the tech improves, costs have dropped by about 80% since last year, he said. It costs about 100,000 yuan ($14,300) a year for a three-dimensional virtual person, and 20,000 yuan for a two-dimensional one.
Li expects the virtual person industry overall will keep growing by 50% annually through 2025.
China is pushing hard into the development of virtual people.
Beijing city announced in August a plan to build up the municipal virtual people industry into one valued at more than 50 billion yuan by 2025. The municipal authorities also called for the development of one or two “leading virtual people businesses” with operating revenue of more than 5 billion yuan each.
This fall, central government ministries released a detailed plan for incorporating more virtual reality – especially in broadcasting, manufacturing and other areas. The country’s latest five-year plan revealed last year included a call for more digitalization of the economy, including in virtual and augmented reality.
Searching for scandal-free icons
From a business perspective, much of the focus is on how virtual people can generate content.
Brands in China are looking for alternative spokespeople after many celebrities recently ran into negative press about tax evasion or personal scandals, said Sirius Wang, chief product officer and head of marketplace Greater China at Kantar.
At least 36% of consumers had watched a virtual influencer or digital celebrity perform in the last year, according to a survey published by Kantar this fall. Twenty-one percent had watched a virtual person host an event or broadcast the news, the report said.
Looking ahead to next year, 45% of advertisers said they might sponsor a virtual influencer’s performance or invite a virtual person to join a brand’s event, according to the Kantar report.
Growing development of virtual people
Many of China’s large tech companies have already been developing products in the virtual humans industry.
Video and game streaming app Bilibili was one of the earliest to take the concept of virtual people mainstream.
The company acquired the team behind virtual singer Luo Tianyi, whose image and sound are fully created by tech. This year, the developers focused on improving the texture of the virtual singer’s voice by using an artificial intelligence algorithm, according to Bilibili.
Launched in 2012, Luo Tianyi has nearly 3 million fans and even performed at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing this year.
Bilibili also hosts many so-called virtual anchors, which are the direct avatars of people using special technology to reach their audience. The company said 230,000 virtual anchors started broadcasting on its platform since 2019, and the virtual anchors’ broadcasting time this year surged by about 200% from last year.
Tencent said in its latest earnings call that Tencent Cloud AI Digital Humans provide chatbots to sectors such as financial services and tourism for automated customer support. The company’s Next Studios also developed a virtual singer and virtual sign language interpreter.
Far smaller companies are also getting into the industry.
Startup Well-Link Technologies — whose cloud rendering tech support for Chinese video game developer miHoYo brought it success in the gaming industry — announced this year it has developed yet another model of a virtual person in a joint venture with Haixi Media.