A virtual anchor like Kizuna Ai is very popular in Japan. Gentle expressions and passionate interaction with fans made her a favorite star on YouTube.
This eye-catching, youthful girl is wearing ruffled stockings and a pink hair band. But Kizuna Ai is a completely virtual character, and the invisible screen behind the actress gives the lovely and vivid anchor image through action and sound.
Thanks to the animation culture and the Ghost in the Shell, millions of Japanese are paying attention to every moment of Kizuna Ai’s video on YouTube. This success has also spawned thousands imitators and a family handicraft that caters to the so-called “virtual anchors” (VTubers). In contrast to Western streaming media such as PewDiePie and Ninja, Japan has invented a new streaming star composed of digital avatars and interactive animations.
“The difference between virtual anchors and regular animated characters is that you can believe that they do exist,” said Takeshi Osaka, the Activ8 founder located in Tokyo. “This sense of presence is an important reason why they are so attractive.”
Kizuna Ai make her debut on the video platform YouTube in December 2016, and the word “VTuber” was born as well. In the same year, the first commercial virtual reality headset was introduced, and related technologies gave birth to more imitators.The virtual reality devices designed by Facebook’s Oculus and HTC’s Vive enable accurate head and hand tracking, which turns out to be the ultimate low-cost device for developing virtual anchors that appeal to fans. With a free-to-use animated rendering engine and 3D models from companies like Unity Technologies, anyone can create a virtual anchor studio at a low price in their living room.
Illustration: Hatsune Miku‘s offline activity organised by Chiba, Japan
It is no accident that virtual anchors can grow and develop in Japan. Japan’s animation-centric user-generated content has a long history, and virtual characters like Hatsune Miku have attracted a large audience. Although from a global perspective, viewers may prefer characters that are more realistic,but japanese users who grew up in comics will undoubtedly have higher acceptance of cartoon virtual stars.
So far, the virtual anchor phenomenon has appeared almost exclusively in the Japanese market, but its potential technologies and methods of combining popular culture with active interaction are widespread throughout the world. Activ8 already has the idea of extending its VTuber portfolio beyond the Japanese market.
Although Japan’s leading position in global technology has probably weakened since the advent of the Walkman, its trend-setting habits remain strong in the gaming arena. At present, three-quarters of the global sales of game consoles are produced by Nintendo and Sony, and free mobile games are sweeping the world with the profitable technology pioneered by Japanese companies. In addition, series of games such as “Super Mario”, “Zelda”, “Monster Hunter” and “Pokémon” are popular all over the world. Anime is another major cultural export industry in Japan with an output value of US$20 billion. Its products include Hayao Miyazaki’s animated work to the recent Hollywood remake of the action comedy “Battle Angel Alita”. The virtual anchor is the combination of these two Japanese cultural expressions.
Market research firm User Experience Researchers Singapore estimates that there are currently more than 9,000 YouTube channels offering virtual anchor content. The most popular is a virtual anchor made by a professional studio like Activ8, and each studio manages dozens of characters at the same time. In less than three years, virtual streaming media anchors have evolved from an unknown subculture to a big industry. Nowadays, Kizuna Ai appears in the advertisements of instant noodles and eye drops, which appeared at the launch conference of the local operator Softbank, and even appeared in the publicity activities organised by the National Tourism Administration of Japan.
“There is no doubt that this will change the future of entertainment,” said Guo Guanghong, founder of Gumi, a Japanese mobile social gaming company. However, he also warned that “in order for such content to resonate outside the Japanese market, it must cater to local tastes and emotions.”
At present, Japan’s virtual anchors are taking the path of least resistance, exporting their role to China’s huge and large-capacity animation market. Activ8 launched the Chinese version of Kizuna Ai earlier this year, transforming clothing and sound, and now has nearly 820,000 fans on the Chinese video site Bilibili like youtube.
The ultimate success of Activ8 means entering Hollywood. Like the famous Japanese games such as Resident Evil, Elf Pokémon and Sonic the Hedgehog, Hollywood is already an old road. Given the world’s appetite for Japanese culture, virtual anchors may not even need to change too much to cater to local tastes of other world.
Osaka Takeshi said: “I founded this virtual artist company because I believe it can be promoted globally.Our goal is to become the next Disney.”