Embracing Inclusivity in Virtual Avatars

Paving the Way for Cultural Representation

June 27, 2023

Shudu Gram is a supermodel that resembles the iconic South African Barbie doll. Moreover, she shares the beauty traits of other black fashion icons such as Grace Jones, Naomi Campbell, and Alek Wek. Yet, these likenesses are not casualties. Shudu Gram is a virtual supermodel created by a white man. 

Cameron James Wilson, Shudu's creator, and CEO of virtual modeling agency The Digitals, decided to disclose her true digital identity long after her debut. This brought with it significant controversy given that her strikingly realistic features are supposed to be of a real person - a controversial trait in today's virtual influencers. Indeed this late disclosure was taken as a lack of transparency and at the same time, a surprising marketing revelation.

Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation?

In addition to virtual models of identity transparency, there is the problem of cultural appropriation. For the avatars-influencers critics, Shudu Gram misleads the representation of black female models, which, taken to a massive production scale, could hurt the accurate interpretation of minorities, create false stereotypes, or even offensive portrayals. Take, for example, the image of a virtual model wearing traditional ornaments of a given community without being faithful to the cultural meaning of those symbols.

On the contrary, for avatars supporters, this is an unprecedented opportunity for racial inclusion promotion. If so, algorithms should be programmed with an inclusive data feed plan. Moreover, this approach would be a turning point in many machine learning programs in the fashion industry, primarily trained on Caucasian faces.

Levi’s will experiment with Lalaland’s realistic AI-generated models later this year. Image: Levi Strauss & Co. / Lalaland.ai

A recent case is Levi's announcement of AI-generated models to increase representation and inclusivity within its brand. This project is developed alongside AI model studio Lalaland; experts in hyperrealistic CGI. In addition to virtual model makers, the company promotes inclusivity by licensing images from virtual models from various ethnic backgrounds, especially underrepresented ones. Yet the question remains on the faithful cultural representation of those avatars. Indeed, should anyone be allowed to create a virtual model?

Pixels of Gender Expression

Digital gender experimentation happens when users create or adopt avatars different from their gender, racial, and ethnic background. For example, according to Quantic Foundry's Gamer Motivation Profile survey, 29% of men prefer playing female characters, whereas only 9% of women prefer playing male characters. Despite the numbers, some argue that gender experimentation can lead to a more empathic understanding of others. In contrast, others claim it may toughen harmful stereotypes or even present a false narrative.

The IoDF's report My Self, My Avatar, My Identity addressed the importance of inclusive representation. One of the key takeaways was the urge for a more eclectic and precise picture of women in virtual environments. At the same time, the report calls for more visibility of the LGBTQ+ community and an accurate representation of people with disabilities.

As more AI avatar builders solutions arise, balancing them with responsible use is mandatory. Especially the fashion industry, which has a significant cultural impact on society, will demand careful curation and consideration. Indeed, establishing protection and ethical guidelines could frame AI-driven virtual influencers applications to uphold authenticity, respect, and inclusivity. Ultimately, everyone is responsible for building a safer and healthier digital fashion.