The U.K.’s Biggest Cell Carrier Brought a CGI Instagram Model to Life With AI and 5G

EE Limited sponsored a BAFTA appearance by virtual influencer Shudu

Virtual influencer Shudu was outfitted with AI for the BAFTAs. Chris Townsend

In a mashup of much-hyped technologies, British wireless carrier EE Limited used artificial intelligence and 5G wireless service to turn a computer-generated Instagram influencer into a virtual fashion stylist for this year’s British Academy of Film Awards.

Helmed by agency Poke London in collaboration with Cake and M&C Saatchi, the campaign starred an Instagram model persona called Shudu—one of a growing crop of virtual social media personalities attracting brand interest—rendered in three-dimensional form through CGI and holographic projection. This super-charged version of Shudu used computer vision and next-generation wireless speeds to identify a given celebrity’s outfit and offer up similar affordable alternatives based on a fan’s tastes through a chatbot with viewers at home.

The idea originated as an attempt to put a new spin on the virtual influencer concept, according to Poke London creative director Chris Townsend. While most of these avatars are hand-choreographed to emulate their human influencer counterparts as closely as possible, Townsend and his team wanted to use technology to turn one superhuman.

“We kind of asked the question: ‘What if they embraced their digital selves?'” Townsend said. “Could we then give them the power to do what no human could do?”

It turned out there were quite a few technical hurdles to overcome before the agency could realize that vision. Each of the three main components—the physical manifestation of the character, the AI backend that allowed her to communicate and the wireless-powered search function—required a host of various technical solutions, said Poke London head of technology Andy Dobson.

“Virtual influencers up until now have been, generally speaking, really just streams of content on various social networks. So bringing that into the real world was really important,” Dobson said. “There was a lot of technology being used to join the lines between different parts of the experience so that these weren’t just disparate elements.”

British photographer Cameron-James Wilson originally created Shudu about a year and a half ago as an art project before social media fame took hold. Wilson has since been approached by “countless” fashion and beauty brands looking to tap into his creation’s star power, but he told Adweek last August that he had yet to accept money for a promotion out of a sense of propriety over her online persona.

Poke worked closely with Wilson throughout the campaign to ensure that the physical manifestation matched his vision for the character.

“It’s been incredible to see something that once lived only in my mind brought to life using innovative hologram technology,” Wilson said in a statement. “Coming from a fashion background myself and seeing Shudu turned into an AI stylist on the EE BAFTA red carpet is a dream come true.”

Robyn Frost, a creative who worked on the project but has since moved to FCB Chicago, said the team spent months writing copy and defining a unique voice for the chatbot experience.

“So many people pit traditional and digital advertising against each other without realising that they can coexist and already do it well,” she said in an email. “We’re lucky to have so many mediums to work in to create different experiences.”

EE isn’t the first major brand to latch onto the nascent virtual influencer space; KFC mocked the trend earlier this month with a virtual Colonel Sanders and CGI superstar Lil Miquela appeared at this year’s Coachella festival in partnership with YouTube Music.

Michael Dempsey, a partner at venture capital firm Compound and creator of a website documenting virtual influencers, recently told Adweek that around 80 such personas exist by his estimate–though most are of low quality and many lay dormant or abandoned. Brud, the startup behind Lil Miquela, the most prolific virtual influencer, has also reportedly raised more than $6 million from investors including big-name Silicon Valley firm Sequoia Capital to create more virtual influencers to sell you real stuff.

@patrickkulp Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.