Do you understand the business logic and technical mystery of virtual idols?


Virtual idol (Virtual idol), virtual influencer (Virtual influencer), virtual anchor (VTubers), these computer-generated “celebrities” are slowly entering the mainstream media’s attention, and even high-end luxury brands are establishing contact and cooperation. There are many reports that focus on their appearance and their impact on the entertainment industry, but they rarely talk about the logic behind them.

What exactly are these virtual “celebrities”? How are they created? What kind of business model is behind them?

There are many definitions of virtual “celebrities” groups such as virtual idols and virtual internet celebrities. The term “virtual celebrities” (Virtualcelebrities) can summarize these definitions, but in fact it mainly includes the following three areas:

▲ Imma, a famous virtual internet celebrity in Japan

Virtual idol

In understanding virtual idols, this virtual concept is mainly aimed at the Asian region,You must first understand that what “idol” actually sells is a collection of his appearance, attractiveness and personality.They are not only singers, but also play various roles, such as actors and models, and often appear in various variety shows. The main purpose of idols is usually to entertain the public. Therefore, “virtual idols” can be summarized as being created for entertainment purposes. Some famous examples include Japan’s Hatsune Miku and China’s Luo Tianyi.

This trend originated in Japan, which has a long history of virtual idols, the most famous of which is the holographic pop singer Hatsune Miku. Technically speaking, Hatsune Miku is a program, a vocal synthesizer named Vocaloid developed by Japanese software company CryptonFuture Media. But in fact, it is in China that the craze for virtual idols is truly “boiling”.

▲ Luo Tianyi, a Chinese virtual idol with considerable commercial value

The admiration of ACG culture (animation, comics and games) by domestic young people has promoted the development of this emerging industry. Luo Tianyi (Luo Tianyi) is China’s most popular virtual idol. In June 2017, when she held her first offline concert in Shanghai, it was said that tickets priced at $180 were sold out within 3 minutes. She has 3 million followers on Weibo and is sought after by young people from China’s growing middle-class families and spends money on fan activities.

Virtual anchor

A virtual anchor (Vtuber, originally referring to a virtual anchor on the Youtube platform) is usually a blogger who uses a digital avatar to broadcast live on a streaming media platform. The current scope is not limited to the Youtube platform. Well-known examples are Kizuna AI or Barbie Vlogger.

▲ Kizuna AI, a virtual anchor live on a streaming platform

Virtual anchors represent the new trend of digital media from Japan and growing in China. It is difficult to estimate the number of active virtual anchors, but at least it has exceeded 10,000, although it may include some virtual internet celebrities. Among them, a small number of virtual anchors have a huge fan community, attracting hundreds of thousands or millions of subscribers, such as Kizuna AI, the most popular virtual anchor so far. It was founded in 2014 and has more than 2.6 million subscribers on YouTube. Due to its high popularity, the companies or organizations behind the virtual anchors have used them for advertising endorsements or product shopping guide business. In 2018, Kizuna Ai was appointed as the first virtual ambassador of the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO).

Virtual influencer/virtual blogger

Virtual influencers are CGI models and occupy a central position in the attention of social media (especially Weibo and Instagram). The most famous example is Lil Miquela, who has 1.8 million followers so far. In the West, virtual influencers are rapidly attracting millions of fans on social media, and they have become part of the new trend in the influencer industry. Due to their success on social media, some virtual influencers have even begun to cooperate with advertising campaigns for famous brands such as Chanel, Tesla, Prada and so on.

▲ Lil Miquela’s fashion style and celebrity effect

The gaming industry has also gradually participated in the virtual internet celebrity industry, although it may sometimes adopt a cross-border form. Recently, Riot Games has used virtual K-pop music groups to help League of Legends attract more new players. In addition to releasing music videos with more than 20 million views in four days, Riot also brought virtual groups to the stage at the world opening ceremony: the latest AR virtual live broadcast technology was used at the opening ceremony of the 2018 finals.

▲ “League of Legends” virtual girl group K/DA

▲One of the members of “League of Legends” virtual girl group K/DA: Ari

Riot’s virtual girl group-each member of K/DA has a real (and already famous) “person of the center”: singers Miyeon, Soyeon, Madison Beer and Jaira Burns. In addition, Electronic Arts has created a virtual character called Alex Hunter for a new role-playing mode in its game. Alex Hunter is a virtual football player who has appeared in several games in the FIFA series. The reference object is the real actor Adetomiwa Edun, which makes it subject to some legal restrictions on its use.

▲Alex Hunter, the virtual protagonist in the “FIFA” series

In China, the love business game “Love and the Producer” took this phenomenon to another level: its creators took advantage of the popularity of mobile games to commercialize the four protagonists and turn them into virtual idols. Four virtual male protagonists have become brand ambassadors for multiple products and have appeared in reality TV shows one after another.

▲Four male virtual idols who have successfully made the circle in “Love and the Producer”

▲Li Zeyan in “Love and the Producer” opened Weibo

In addition, the most popular mobile game “Glory of Kings” has also launched its own men’s team-Infinite Kings. The five men’s team members Zhao Yun, Li Bai, Zhuge Liang, Han Xin and Baili Shoucheng joined hands with ELLE’s new blood Together with “SuperELLE”, they put on Givenchy’s costumes to show the audience a set of visual blockbusters that interweave young power and trendy atmosphere. And the Queen of Women’s Group-Canyon Five Beauty, also teamed up with the international beauty brand MAC to launch an exclusive limited lipstick series.

▲ “King of Glory” Unlimited Kings and “SuperELLE” linkage

▲ MAC lipstick for the five beauty endorsements of the Canyon

The technology behind the “virtual celebrities”:
From traditional CGI to primary AI stage

Of course, the simulation of human characters has existed in technology for many years, and 3D characters are not unfamiliar to game and film and television special effects artists. Every year, the technology and tools of digital characters are constantly innovating. Are there other new continents that can be tapped for the technology behind the virtual characters?

How did “virtual celebrities” come into being?May not require as high technology as you think

Although virtual idols, virtual anchors or virtual internet celebrities are recent new trends, for those who are familiar with the movie VFX or game industry, they are actually constructed using fairly traditional tools. In short, most “virtual celebrities” are made by character artists following standard 3D processes, such as modeling tools such as Maya or Blender. In fact, many “virtual celebrities” are much simpler in technology than the virtual characters on the screen that the public often sees in blockbuster films.

▲ Simple production of virtual anchors and real-time surface capture software Facerig

Usually, a digital artist can independently create a virtual influencer, while a movie role usually needs to mobilize dozens of teams using high-end professional software. In particular, it seems that virtual internet celebrities often use real-based character model libraries such as DAZ for transformation, and only need to modify or add the head model.

▲ Shudu, the world’s first virtual supermodel

In fact, the famous virtual internet celebrity-Shudu Gram, the world’s first virtual supermodel, was actually created by photographer Cameron James-Wilson as a hobby of modeling. Cameron said in an interview that he first created the prototype of the character in Blender, and used the DAZ asset library that is very friendly to beginners to make the model model. Of course, the high-quality rendering and aesthetics ultimately presented by Shudu are related to the professional aesthetics and professionalism of Cameron’s own photographers.

▲ A plane photo of Shudu, the world’s first virtual supermodel

Except for the experienced production team behind some famous virtual celebrities,Many virtual internet celebrities actually rely on a very simple and cost-effective 3D production process, such as using software such as Reallusion Iclone, through the official pre-configured tool set to quickly create characters, customize modifications and complete detailed adjustments.This also explains why many characters look similar except for virtual anchors with large differences in image. But this is not surprising: behind many virtual people are projects led by small teams, and at the beginning they are still uncertain about their own profitability methods and capabilities.

The relationship between virtual humans and animation

Some virtual characters usually need to walk, talk or interact with the audience, so they rely heavily on real human actors to perform.Generally use such asRokoko Smart SuitPro or domestic Noi TengWait for motion capture orIphone, Hyprsense and other facial capture devicesTo drive the actions of virtual characters. This animation technology is not easy for ordinary users, which is why sometimes virtual internet celebrities mainly publish static pictures.Of course, virtual anchors may be an exception, and their usual two-dimensional animation images can be stylized to reduce the difficulty of reducing animation performance.

▲ Silent sauce native to the Douyin platform

A common facial capture solution mainly relies on Iphone to complete, it has a TrueDepth camera, which can track the movement of the user’s face quite accurately. In this case, only the mobile phone can be used to animate the face. Considering that the previous solutions are very expensive, this is a small revolution in the field of animation. Long ago, the artist and excellent player Cory Strassburger (Cory Strassburger) managed to build a complete virtual baby motion capture solution with the iPhone and Xsens suit.

The animation is there, what about the sound? This may be a limiting factor and usually requires a voice actor. For those who are just getting started, any live broadcast requires the presence of a voice actor. But what if the actor leaves or is unable to take on the role of dubbing? Can virtual idols with millions of followers be accepted to change their voices? There is no ready-made solution, but there is no doubt that the team behind the virtual idol is looking for a speech synthesis solution, just like the perfect synchronization of synthetic speech that Hatsune Miku has achieved.

Will “virtual celebrities” use artificial intelligence technology?

It does, but the degree and effect of its use vary greatly. Some virtual characters are based on traditional modeling and animation technology, some virtual people only use AI in a small amount, and some hope to use AI as their core technology. In most cases, this seems unlikely, because natural language processing and generation technologies (NLP and NLG) still have a long way to go before they can meet the full dialogue function. Unfortunately, the virtual human market is full of bold attempts and promises related to artificial intelligence technology, many of which have been proven wrong.

▲ Amelia IPSoft’s virtual assistant

Certain virtual characters (such as Kizuna Ai) do claim to be AI-driven, or even AI itself, but in most cases this is not the case. Although the public, including journalists, usually believe these statements, they are unwilling to recognize their idols It is indeed manually controlled. However, there is no doubt that in the next few years, with the development of artificial intelligence, the role of AI driving and appearance will increase rapidly, and the relationship will become closer.

How do “virtual celebrities” monetize?
Are virtual influencers really opening up new markets?

Not all virtual celebrities have achieved the same reputation. Those virtual Internet celebrities have gained worldwide recognition, entered the world of mainstream media, reached high-end brand deals, and raised enough funds to develop the mature companies behind them. Lil Miquela, Hatsune Miku or Luo Tianyi have found good monetization channels. For example, the cooperation between Brud and the brand Calvin Klein allows the virtual model Lil Miquela and the real model Bella Hadid (Bella Hadid) kiss. Some characters themselves were created for commercial activities, such as KFC’s virtual colonel Sanders.

▲ Lil Miquela, a virtual internet celebrity, and Bella Hadid, a live-action supermodel, endorsed CK

▲ KFC uses digital technology to create a young version of the image of Colonel Sanders

So far, Brud has raised US$25.5 million, and Activ8 Co., Ltd. (the company behind Kizuna Ai) has raised US$5.4 million to fund its virtual anchor project. These figures well reflect the interest of investors, who believe that this business model can be scaled up. However, only a few virtual idols can take advantage of this successful experience, and the initial success of those big-name virtual idols may also be partly due to their early entry and the hype effect caused by a form of entertainment that was never seen at the time.

▲ SK-II and AI company Soul Machines

Co-launched realistic virtual model Yumi

Generally speaking, “famous” does not mean a successful business model. So what is the difference between these virtual celebrities and real celebrities?

Virtual business on streaming platforms

Virtual images have actually appeared on streaming media platforms for a long time. The user TheOneManny has been active since 2015, using facial capture and virtual character driving software FaceRig to replace his face in the daily live broadcast of “Counter Strike” games, and has gained a lot of popularity.

▲ The virtual dog stand-in of the anchor TheOneManny

Of course, the dog head image used by TheOneManny on Facerig is not specially customized and can be used by anyone. This actually involves the topic of avatar ownership, but the use of avatars can indeed increase the popularity of many anchors.

The OneManny case is interesting because it proves that the virtual character has the same monetization channel as the live anchor. They obtain revenue through various revenue sharing programs on platforms such as YouTube or Bilibili. In addition, the virtual anchor has other ways to realize rewards and virtual props.

In summary, virtual anchors can usually earn income through the following 5 channels:

1. Advertising revenue
2. Sponsorship
3. Bring goods
4. Donate
5. Paid subscription

▲ The talk show “Dare and Heart Night Talk” between Nanami and Ruki, the virtual UP master of station B

How much money can you make just by relying on streaming media or video blogs? In fact, Offenburg University of Applied Sciences conducted a survey in 2018. For 96.5% of YouTubers, their income is not enough to overcome the poverty line in the United States. Entertainment practitioners are expected to earn between US$1.5 and US$3 per thousand views, excluding other sources of income. Of course, for a broadcaster who can reach one million views, his income may only be around US$3,000.

In short, because other sources of income may be insufficient, virtual anchors are bound to rely mainly on sponsorship agreements and goods. Only well-known virtual anchors can achieve the expected considerable income, and virtual anchors who can only rely on a small number of viewers cannot even earn living expenses.

Do virtual influencers have extra bonuses?

Do virtual influencers have similar business logic to real influencers in reality? The answer is yes, they are influential people. In the long run, they are Internet celebrities with extra bonuses.

The income of ordinary Internet celebrities can basically be attributed to advertising income, sponsorship, monetizing their fan community, or using their reputation to obtain a certain amount of non-cash income, which is not very important for virtual people. The return rate of a virtual character is closely related to the activity of the follower, and is usually affected by its uniqueness and ability to reach the Gen Z population.

▲ NooNoouri endorsed LACOSTE on Instagram

Therefore, the real difference between virtual influencers and traditional influencers is not in their respective monetization methods, but in their potential: the difference between virtual influencers and real influencers is not really in their way of making money, but It lies in their potential: virtual influencers can exist anywhere at the same time and are completely controlled and managed by their respective companies, which can speed up the promotion of commercial cooperation. In theory, virtual influencers can participate in a fashion show in Paris, while at the same time engaging in commercial advertising activities in Tokyo, and maintain the stability of content and performance.

▲ NooNoouri’s virtual life daily and endorsement

Virtual Internet celebrities do have more potential than general Internet celebrities, but they must achieve a certain degree of popularity. In the early stages, with a smartphone and a virtual character production platform, anyone can become a virtual internet celebrity. But rendering and setting up the animation of virtual characters is very expensive, and is usually not a job that can be done by one person. Behind the virtual influencer Noonoouri is a team of six artists who work full-time.

The challenge of virtual celebrities

The main challenge is the reputation of the virtual character. All avatars, virtual internet celebrities, or virtual anchors can’t reach the top reputation…Of course, being famous is hardly a business model.

Win-win business model

Not only is it good to make “it”, it is also necessary to create the community and ecology behind them!

Some people are already considering another winning strategy. A good example is Reality, an APP developed by a department of GREE, which provides an independent and complete virtual anchor platform to narrow the distance between the audience community and the anchor door. Some of the other teams have established virtual broker agencies, and these agencies have signed contracts to assemble and manage multiple virtual anchors.

▲ A-SOUL, a virtual idol girl group launched by Lehua Entertainment

Popularization of 3D content creation

Virtual celebrities have huge potential because they are not restricted by geographical space and have unlimited imagination. More importantly, they can interact and interact with other virtual platforms or fantasy universes in the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, this potential is limited by the difficulties caused by 3D digital content production. Although 3D digital content production is becoming more commonplace, it is still a very expensive task, especially when considering animation and rendering costs. Case.

▲ 3D character assets on DAZ official website

Conventional influencers only need to produce content and distribute them online, while virtual influencers must create virtual assets, set up animations, and finally synthesize and render. Some tools and platforms are already working hard to overcome these obstacles, and these efforts will undoubtedly greatly reduce the barriers to entry.

The potential of artificial intelligence

Another more critical but more challenging route for the development of virtual humans is to use artificial intelligence technology: because current virtual humans basically require manual methods to set animations and manage character behaviors. You can imagine how amazing the speed of content creation on the platform will become when the virtual AI feels more “autonomy”. There is still a long way to go to realize a fully autonomous virtual person, but judging from the current entry of various content platforms and major manufacturers, its increasingly fierce competition will undoubtedly accelerate this journey.

– END –

Reference source:
VIRTUALS:《Virtual celebrities: in-depth analysis of the tech and business behind the next generation of idols》

Source: Film Designer


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