Ihave been fascinated with virtual characters ever since reading science-fiction novels that featured sentient personas that provided guidance to captains of starships on intergalactic
missions. Those concepts migrated to television
and cinema, from Star Trek’s holodeck simulations in the ’60s, to Max Headroom in the ’80s,
to the holographic virtual companion Joi in the
film Blade Runner 2049.
Although the idea of virtual humans has
been around in pop culture, anime, and science
fiction, the Japanese brought the concept of
“virtual idols” to reality when the Horipro talent agency launched Kyoko Date in 1996, and
Ken-ichi Kutsugi designed and created Terai
Yuki in 1997. Both became CG pop stars and
digital personalities who released CDs that garnered some airplay. They were covered by the
media, made television and radio appearances
and music videos, and were even featured in
publications and ads. Neither was able to create
enough interesting follow-up content to sustain
their initial adulation or enjoy more than limited success.
Eventually, virtual idols waned in popularity, but in 2007, a turquoise-haired virtual idol
named Hatsune Miku started the resurgence
and rocketed to stardom in Japan. Crypton
Future Media created the character using the
Vocaloid engine, a synthesized voice technology developed by Yamaha that was able to auto-tune notes in a human-like manner based on
user input. This gave Hatsune Miku a unique
voice and personality that enabled users to create original music and dialogue for the character. She became a digital phenom due to the
collaborative nature of her multimedia content,
which was openly shared on Nico Nico Douga,
a popular Japanese consumer-streaming platform where fans were encouraged to write original music and remixes, create and edit videos,
and illustrate and animate 2D and 3D renditions of her.
Hatsune Miku performs live as an animated
holographic singer at concerts around the world.
Her fanbase numbers in the millions, and she
has hundreds of millions of views and listens
across the internet. She has appeared in TV
commercials, TV shows, animations, books, and
magazines, as well as on billboards, promotional cars, and online soundtracks. She even has a
full line of action figures.
Due to the popularity of Hatsune Miku and
low-cost hardware and software, the proliferation of “Virtual You Tubers” has been increasing in Japan. Virtual You Tubers are animated
characters generated in real time using reasonably priced motion capture software, motion
capture hardware, and open source animation
software MikuMikuDance (MMD). One popular Virtual You Tuber, Kizuna Ai, has her own
You Tube channel, A.I., which has more than
1. 5 million subscribers and is rapidly growing.
Ai creates Let’s Play videos, instructs viewers
in how-to videos, and vlogs about various subjects on her channel. She faces increasing competition as more and more Virtual Idols are being released on a consistent basis.
The technologies and tools for animating CG
characters in real time are now more accessible to companies, educators, and content creators. Mostly, they require either low-cost facial
tracking software or a gaming engine such as
Unreal or Unity installed on mid- to upper-level
consumer laptops with powerful GPUs. A new
generation of mobile apps with facial and body
tracking technology will take advantage of ARKit
and ARCore, making it easier to animate characters from mobile phones.
Since the technology is becoming simpler and
more cost-effective, computer-generated personalities and avatars will become more prevalent in the virtual space and online for live events,
corporate communications, customer support,
and training, and avatars will be integrated into
more presentations. The level of sophistication
of produced streams will feature dynamic data
displays, virtual sets, animations, interactive objects and environments, live feeds, social media,
motion graphics, and more.
Real-Time Virtual Characters
and Idols Will Create New
Forms of Streaming Content