At the start of the year, we made our first predictions on what will happen to the digital human market in 2022. However, one thing we could have included was the increase in scientific research around the technology.

Analysts, researchers, scientists – various people and parties are in the process of identifying the value of digital humans through meticulous study. 

As a technology that began life on the back of a napkin, it’s humbling and exciting in equal measure to see all this research come to light.

With digital humans on a trajectory to become a $528 billion market by 2030, this kind of research is important for understanding the future of brand experiences. So we thought we’d highlight three studies you may not have seen that reveal exciting findings about digital humans.

1. Virtual human influencers perform well for brands – but interactivity so far remains untapped

We know celebrity endorsements, ambassadors and influencers are hugely popular in marketing. But now, research into the role of virtual influencers and ambassadors is helping to show that in a digital-first world, these people don’t have to be real to have a real effect.

A study by Laila Zhong of the Department of Media and Communication, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, looked further into this phenomenon. This qualitative research study analyzed people’s sentiments towards traditional IKEA advertising and that employing IKEA’s virtual ambassador, Imma.

The results will prick the ears of any brand marketer looking at improving engagement. As the researchers noted:

“The higher the visibility of virtual influencers on social media, the more views, likes, comments and forwards of their endorsed advertisements, and the stronger the audience’s customer brand engagement.”

The research also found that interactivity can lead to greater marketing engagement:

“The more interactive the advertisement is, the more it can satisfy the audience’s love and belonging needs, and the stronger the customer brand engagement will be.”

The research coincides with our own Digital Einstein case study, in which a conversational AI Albert Einstein was employed as a virtual ambassador. Interactive Digital Einstein in our marketing campaigns led to improved metrics across the whole marketing funnel, including a 5x increase in click-through rates on our social ads.

Given the power of interactive experiences, it will be interesting to see how engagement rates progress as more of these virtual influencers get given the means to hold two-way dialogue through conversational AI – today and in the metaverse.

10 reasons brands should care about the metaverse (infographic CTA) | UneeQ Blog

2. Patients can build a therapeutic alliance – to impact depression and health literacy

The healthcare industry is one of the pioneers of digital human technology, and has similarly used other “non-human” agents to help create better relationships with patients over recent years.

The goal is often to build a “therapeutic alliance” – a strong relationship between the AI assistant and patient, which creates a good environment for trust, medical adherence and ultimately successful treatment.

Whether a digital human (or similar non-human agent) could build this alliance is a key question. The study Response to a relational agent by hospital patients with depressive symptoms looked into that very matter.

Researchers created a rudimentary animated nurse – Elizabeth, dubbed a “relational agent” for these purposes – who could discuss the patients’ discharge plans face to face. The study focussed on people with depression – a health issue affecting some 15% of the US population. As the report noted:

“The primary finding of the study is that patients with symptoms indicative of major depression rated the agent significantly higher on therapeutic alliance. In combination with their greater stated desire to continue working with the agent, this indicates that a relational agent is not only acceptable to patients with major depressive symptoms, but that these patients feel they have established a stronger emotional bond with the agent compared to patients without depressive symptoms.”

What’s more, the vast majority said they would prefer to receive their discharge information from the avatar than they would an actual doctor or nurse. Only 24% of patients said they would prefer the latter. As one participant put it:

“It was just like a nurse, actually better, because sometimes a nurse just gives you the paper and says ‘here you go’. Elizabeth explains everything.”

Lastly, patients with inadequate health literacy notably reported a significantly greater therapeutic alliance with the digital agent. These under-served and at-risk individuals also asked the non-human nurse more questions than those with adequate health literacy. Agents like Elizabeth, the researchers explained, “could help reduce disparities in access to care” within and beyond cases of depression.

3. Home is where the heart – the future of conversational AI home assistants?

A use case for digital humans which hasn’t been explored in too much detail (so far) is their potential careers as home assistants. That’s despite it being one of the first ideas for humanized AI explored in fiction – Joi in Blade Runner 2049, Samantha from HER, even HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, before that went south.

So far, the concept of AI home helpers has firmly sat in the domain for voice assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google. Whether people will similarly accept digital humans into their homes is a strong barometer for whether they’ll accept them in other aspects of life – in retail, in hotels, in healthcare, in the virtual world of the metaverse.

In Spyros Papadatos’s dissertation on the Integration of IoT and Cloud Services in a Home Automation Assistant, there’s a suggestion that people will not only welcome digital humans in the home, but prefer it

The first key finding was an overwhelming digital human preference compared to voice-only applications.

When asked “did you like the idea of interacting with a digital human avatar vs only voice assistant”, 95.2% responded “yes”.

The research also posed people the question of whether they would like to interact with the home automation ecosystem and digital humans again in the future. 

The vast majority of respondents answered in the affirmative, ranging from: “Definitely” (52.4%) to “Yes” (23.8%) and “Maybe yes” (19%).

Such a response suggests to us that voice assistants have won the minds of consumers, but not yet their hearts – there’s still room for more “human” in the home.

We’d like to extend our thanks to Spyros Papadatos who shared his dissertation with us after using UneeQ Creator to create his digital human home assistant.