Japan’s latest big thing: ‘virtual YouTubers’
  • Monday, November 12, 2018
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Japan’s latest big thing: ‘virtual YouTubers’

  • The virtual YouTuber character called Kizuna Ai has the biggest fan base with more than 2 million followers, according to User Local Inc., a Tokyo-based data research firm.

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Tokyo >> YouTube erected a platform where commoners could climb the ladder to stardom.

Now, the video-sharing giant is seeing another wave of new talent diving into a glittering entertainment scene.

They aren’t exactly human, though.

These entertainers are called “virtual YouTubers,” or “VTubers,” and are represented by digital avatars that look like anime characters.

Almost exclusively a Japanese phenomenon, at least so far, these virtual talents have proliferated rapidly over the past several months and people in the industry, together with observers, predict the movement will only accelerate.

Following are some questions and answers about virtual YouTubers.

Question: What do virtual YouTubers do?

Answer: It’s quite similar to what human YouTubers do, such as recording themselves playing video games, trying new apps, singing, dancing and live streaming their chats with viewers.

They are of course created and managed by humans who set up motion-capture and filming devices so the avatars mirror their real-life movements and voice.

How smoothly the avatars move differs according to each VTuber. Some are 3D characters capable of smooth gestures and changing facial expressions that emulate emotions.

Their main playing field is YouTube, but those that have gained popularity there hold live events in the real world and have started appearing on TV programs.

Q: How fast are virtual YouTubers growing?

A: The Tokyo-based data research firm User Local Inc. announced last week that the number of VTubers had topped 4,000. Only about 2 1/2 months earlier the figure stood at around 2,000.

According to User Local, which also compiles virtual YouTuber rankings, the character called Kizuna Ai has the biggest fan base with more than 2 million followers.

Kaguya Luna stands at No. 2 with 750,000 followers, while Mirai Akari has about 625,000.

Compared with the leading Japanese human YouTubers, who have over 6 million followers, the numbers may be be smaller, but Kizuna Ai already outnumbers some famous YouTubers, such as Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, a former member of the boy band SMAP who has roughly 785,000 fans following his channel.

Q: Why are they becoming so popular?

A: Minoru Hirota, a journalist who runs a media website called Panora, which specializes in virtual reality-related news, said the movement started picking up steam late last year.

Before then, Kizuna Ai, who is seen as the pioneer of the field, was the only popular VTuber.

But several other characters debuted in December and attracted attention.

“People are already familiar with (human) YouTubers, but they have become saturated lately. Then this virtual YouTuber thing popped up and a lot of people found it interesting,” Hirota said.

YouTuber Nekomasu is portrayed as a female avatar, but the voice sounds like a middle-aged man.

From a technology perspective, Hirota said a big factor behind the bump in popularity is the fact that devices and software necessary to make virtual avatar videos have become significantly cheaper.

Q: How are they different from anime characters?

A: A critical difference is that virtual YouTubers tend to have more personality than anime characters, whose attributes are locked in by a script.

VTubers can communicate with their fans in real time via social media.

Q: What kind of people want to become virtual YouTubers?

A: These folks tend to have a desire to express themselves but are often too shy to do so by showing their face to the public, said Daichi Tsukamoto, CEO of Duo Inc., a Nagoya-based startup that established a virtual YouTuber management agency called Entum in April.

“We’ve had some auditions and realized that there are really creative people in this world,” said Tsukamoto, whose agency supports popular VTubers like Mirai Akari and Nekomiya Hinata.

For instance, some people are too shy to talk to another person face to face but can express themselves smoothly and be funny over the phone.

Q: How will these virtual talents evolve? Is it just a short-term boom?

A: The beginning of the virtual talent movement, say observers and people in the industry.

“I am betting on a future where virtual talents will become ubiquitous,” said Tsukamoto.

In the meantime, Tsukamoto said, virtual talents themselves will need to become more creative and innovative, pointing out that many VTubers just emulate Kizuna Ai.

Meanwhile, Kizuna Ai was named as an ambassador to promote tourism by the Japan National Tourism Organization.

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