A group of digital models dressed in sports outfits strutted down the runway in an online virtual fashion show during China Fashion Week in September. Led by Xijiajia, tech company Baidu Inc's virtual spokesperson, they presented the latest garments by homegrown sportswear maker Anta Sports in different virtual scenarios — stadiums, snowfields, the Gobi Desert and even outer space.
Virtual humans and fashion shows, unbounded by time and space in the way a physical event would be, offer myriad benefits to the fashion industry, bringing to audiences a fresh, immersive and interactive experience.
Thanks to AI advances, digital avatars bearing a close resemblance to real humans in appearance and behavior have been put to service in not only fashion and livestreaming, but also a wide range of other activities, industry experts said.
Li Shiyan, head of Baidu's digital human and robotics section, said that by leveraging the real-time calculation and animation rendering technologies offered by Xiling — the company's digital avatar platform — the production cost of virtual clothing has been reduced dramatically, and production periods shortened from more than one month to just a week.
Li noted that an increasing number of brands are looking to use virtual beings in livestreaming and other marketing campaigns, which is expected to help enterprises reduce at least 50 percent of operational costs by cutting spending on brick-and-mortar livestreaming locations, hardware and hiring real human anchors.
"The virtual human industry is still in an early stage, and there are some challenges, such as how to produce low-cost digital assets and digital content, and how to make digital humans interact with real people more naturally," Li said.
Resolving these issues relies on iteration of technologies such as natural language processing and computer vision, Li said, adding that the company will continue to pour capital and manpower into the digital human industry.
The size of China's virtual human market is forecast to reach 270 billion yuan ($37.9 billion) by 2030, according to an industry report released by Qbit-AI, an industry services platform focusing on AI and other cutting-edge technology.
According to experts, the fashion landscape is rapidly expanding its virtual horizon to prepare for a future populated by digital avatars, and the most accessible way for fashion brands to engage with virtual replicas is by dressing them in their latest collections.
"The application of virtual humans in the fashion field has distinctive advantages. Holding virtual fashion shows doesn't just mean moving real-world shows online; more importantly, we can utilize digital space to expand our interpretation of fashion and imagination for what is possible," said Chen Duan, director of the Digital Economy Integration Innovation Development Center at the Central University of Finance and Economics.
Chen said, for example, people can make use of textures that do not exist in the physical world, and digital humans are able to go beyond the physiological limits of real humans and present new fashion styles in new ways.
Digital humans are increasingly being used in brand promotion, advertisement, livestreaming, gaming and entertainment, said Zhu Xiaowen, an analyst at Lead-Leo Research Institute. However, she added that a new set of problems have also emerged, such as personal privacy protection and data security. Experts said unregulated use of digital humans might open a way for fraud, given that digital humans can be difficult to distinguish from real people.
China's first virtual influencer Ayayi, who debuted on social media platform Xiaohongshu in May 2021 and garnered over 20,000 followers overnight, has attracted the attention of well-renowned fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton and Guerlain.
Pan Helin, co-director of the Digital Economy and Financial Innovation Research Center at Zhejiang University's International Business School, said he is optimistic about the business prospects of virtual humans in fashion and livestreaming, and called for more efforts to improve 3D modeling, rendering and motion capture technologies to bolster the development of the country's digital human sector.
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