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Japan’s newest digital pop stars blur the line between virtual and reality



As AI infused life-like digital humans and avatars get better and more capable they’re starting to sign their own pop deals and compete with real humans.


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Recently I’ve been talking a lot about the rise of new AI musicians, virtual influencers and life-like digital humans that are increasingly trying to take on everyone from human bloggers and influencers online, all the way through to customer service agents, pop stars and teachers. With an increasing amount of success might I add with a number being signed by companies including Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group. So, it’s no surprise therefore that this particular cultural article piqued my interest as we look towards a time where humans will increasingly have to co-exist with digital humans – for better and worse.


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Ryosei Takehisa, 24 years old, doesn’t have any children – unless you count an animated character with elfin ears called Mikuriya Kuon. In live appearances on YouTube, the kimono-clad Kuon character, voiced by an actor hired by Takehisa, dispenses advice about the latest videogames and plays rock-paper-scissors with her fans.

The creator says he considers Kuon his “real daughter” even though she “resides within pixels.” While others may compete for fame or page views, “for me, I’m totally satisfied just with the fact that she was born and is continuing to live life in good health,” says Takehisa.

Digital avatars with human traits, like Lil Miquela, a virtual influencer who now earns millions of dollars a year for her creators, are becoming increadsingly common on social media, on Instagram in particular, and Japan, as it often does, has taken the idea and run with it, with the number of so called virtual characters now estimated to number more than 3,000.


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Needless to say technology allows Kuon and her peers to have more direct engagement with fans – and sometimes a family-like relationship with their own creators. The characters, known as virtual YouTubers or VTubers because many are active on YouTube, sing and dance at live performances and answer questions on webcasts.

VTubers are so embedded in Japanese culture that one of them serves as a face of the Japanese government’s tourism campaign. Another presented earnings results for game-site operator Gree Inc. in August last year, informing investors that “we will aggressively invest in strengthening our three earnings pillars.”

The making of a VTuber starts with a designer creating a cartoon character, often a young woman with an irreverent attitude. Producers pair that character with a voice artist and a person wearing a full-body suit with motion sensors. Then a computer program converts the data into a 3D image of the character singing, talking and gesturing.


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One of Sony Music’s latest pop sensations is a VTuber called Kaguya Luna. The first single by the feisty, lavender-haired star, “Beyond the Moon,” made it to No. 3 on iTunes in Japan.

Luna was drawn by a 25 year old graphic artist who goes by the name Mika Pikazo.

“I don’t have kids, but I felt like I was creating my own child,” says Pikazo, who declines to give her real name. Fans call Pikazo “Mika Mama,” and when Luna made her concert debut last year, mama cried.  “I had no idea how good she was going to be at singing. I was touched.”

From ancient times, when the sculptor Pygmalion fell in love with a statue of a woman he had crafted, according to the tale told by Ovid, artists have attributed human qualities to their creations. Today, technology makes it easier for artists to declare that “it’s a relationship. It’s not just I created this character; I love this character,” says Patrick Galbraith, author of a forthcoming book on Japanese popular culture.


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The most popular VTuber may be Luna’s year-older rival, Kizuna Ai, who wears a schoolgirl’s uniform, sings pop tunes, endorses Japan’s tourism campaign and has more than 2.6 million YouTube subscribers.

Sony Music and the company that owns Ai, another virtual popstar, startup Activ8, had their stars engage in a rap battle in a video posted on YouTube in July.

“You’re just a replica of me made one year too late,” says Ai, to which Luna responds, “Grandma, keep your head down” and “If you keep bad-mouthing me like that, your account may be deleted.”

Sony says a single actor-singer – whose name it won’t disclose – voices Luna and wears the suit used to generate Luna’s movements. Activ8’s chief executive, Takeshi Osaka, is less willing to give a peek behind Ai’s curtain. Asked about the star’s origins, Osaka says, “She came into the virtual world by herself.” He adds, “Basically, she herself produces her own videos.”


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When real reality breaks through it can be jarring. During a live webcast last year, a character called Nora Cat, a pink-haired young woman with silky hair and feline ears, was chatting about videogames with her fans when the screen suddenly flickered. In the cartoon woman’s place sat a round-faced man wearing glasses and a plaid shirt. A second or two later, Nora was back on the screen.

Some fans were understandably unnerved to learn the character they had fallen in love with was actually a man using a voice changer and computer graphics.

“I only used to see her as a beautiful young girl,” commented one. The identity of the man couldn’t be learned, and a message sent to Nora Cat’s Twitter account wasn’t returned.



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One thing is indisputably real about top VTuber stars: the money it costs to see them perform. At a concert in June celebrating the date of Ai’s self-proclaimed birthday, tickets went for about $85, about the same as tickets to Ed Sheeran’s top-selling tour last year.

The stage was a giant screen. Ai told her fans she was looking for ways to be an even bigger star. “I’ll try my best with English!” she said in Japanese.

“Ai, you can do it!” yelled a fan from a sea of neon pink glow-sticks.

VTubers are an evolution in Japan’s long tradition of manga and anime, giving real-time interactivity to the sort of characters earlier depicted in comic books and on television screens. The next step could be artificial intelligence to allow the VTubers to sing, dance and be mischievous without any backstage human help as I’ve discussed just recently.


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But Roch Nakajima, who owns a Miami company that sells motion-capturing devices to the VTuber world, says that won’t come anytime soon.

“It’s really that person behind the costume expressing themselves that forms the connection,” says Nakajima. Without it, he says, “the character is not funny, it’s flat.”

Sony is trying to extend Luna’s human touch further by building on its Virtual Reality (VR) technology. It has already staged concerts by Luna that fans view through a VR headset. Next the company is looking into haptic technology – which can convey senses of touch including force and vibrations – to allow fans to get up close and personal with Luna in new ways that will allow fans to interact with their virtual idols physically.


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“There is no opportunity for a hug now. With haptics and VR you can,” says Shigeki Tanaka, senior vice president of Sony Music Entertainment. The company is still working out what kind of shirt, long-sleeved glove or other gear fans will have to wear to receive the star’s affection.

Pikazo, the pop idol’s “mama,” pondered the possibility of a digital embrace.

“Luna is so glamorous. She’s not a kid anymore, so she might not be willing to hug her mother,” she said.

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[…] digital humans take center stage, whether it’s Sony investing in and creating their own ranges of virtual pop stars, companies using them to provide customer service or teach kids, or actual “Synthetic Beings” […]

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