The phenomenon “VTuber” sounds crazy at first. Japanese companies, too, have jumped on the trend and are developing their own “virtual tubers.” And the globalization of this trend has made one or the other of Japan very much convinced.
It was in August 2018 when I stumbled across VTuber for the first time. Shigetaka Kurita, who is considered the “father of emojis,” told me in a conversation with his current company Dwango in Tokyo about this current trend: YouTuber are actually through, the new thing are 3D anime characters that would be streamed live on the Internet and because of a huge fanbase. Several million followers are now normal. The avatar that got the thing rolling is called Kizuna Ai.
Kurita showed me the first videos, told me that Japanese companies like beverage giant Suntory are now working with Kizuna Ai and other companies are developing their own VTubers. The advantage: no scandals, no difficult influencers.
Virtual characters are easy to handle. The whole thing would meanwhile also migrate in the direction VR and in addition to the animations and live modifications of the voice would be the latest craze. Behind the characters with the schoolgirl look stuck more than you would think, middle-aged software developers.
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My curiosity was aroused. And just a few days later, at a Japanese fair dedicated to the hologram character Hatsune Miku, I discovered a small stand where you could transform yourself live into a 3D character, including voice modding in real-time.
Big gaming computers groaned and croaked, but the result was impressive. At the same time I had the impression that the VTuber existence would have to be something for the very tough technology geeks. Without a gaming computer hardly anything seemed feasible.
All the more surprised me shortly after my visit, the announcement of the Japanese mobile social gaming pioneer Gree, which announced a VTuber avatar live streaming app for smartphones. “Reality Avatar” is the name of the application. One reason for a conversation with Kensuke Sugiyama, who is responsible for the communication of the VTuber Department at the 16,000-employee company Gree:
How did the phenomenon originate in Japan?
Kensuke Sugiyama: There are actually two distinct areas that have produced the VTuber phenomenon. On the one hand, there is the entire manga and anime environment – through print media, television, digital media, but also via real-life events such as cosplay conventions or Hatsune Miku concerts, the drawn characters have become incredibly popular in Japan. And also a great success worldwide. Secondly, we have developments such as video online platforms like YouTube or Nico Nico Douga and live streaming – which have developed into their own industries with their specific stars. If you connect these two lines of development, then you end up with the VTubern. And finally, Japanese are quite shy and reluctant to show their “true face”. They like to talk about their true thoughts, but an avatar helps them quite clearly. How to prevent a loss of face.
Literally. Is there something like the big bang of the VTuber?
Yes, this is a VTuber named Kizuna Ai. In the context of this YouTube character, who was not yet live, but more like a classic YouTube creator, the term “Virtual YouTuber” was first used, which was later merged into the new generic term VTuber. During the year, more VTubers were added, Kizuna Ai became known throughout Japan and the number of fans was growing. Today, there are already a few VTubers gathering well over a million fans and followers around. Another trigger was the emergence of an unusual character, who was like Kizuna Ai a pretty anime girl, but had a male voice. That made for a big hype. This obvious contradiction interested the people.
When did the transition to live broadcasting come?
At the end of 2017, VR chats became known in Japan. That was probably a central starting point. In the beginning, most of the live broadcasting took place on YouTube, but special streaming platforms quickly became established: showrooms (especially for Japanese pop stars), Mirrativ (a live gaming platform) – and Gree then came up with the mobile platform Reality in April 2018 on the market. Especially for VTuber.
Why did Gree join the VTuber business?
We believe that VR chats will make acting as Avatar significant. Gree is already very active in the field of VR and our mobile games also have different characters and associated voice actors, who then as VTuber can establish closer contact with the fans. We do not consider this a short-term trend, but a completely new digital segment. Where we take care of both the production and the audience side.
How does that look exactly?
There are two apps for end users and newcomers to the VTuber business. One is reality. This is a VTuber streaming site where you can watch streams of your favorite VTubers. On the other hand, with Reality Avatar we offer an app for the translators.
How exactly will I become a VTuber with Reality Avatar?
That’s pretty easy. First you build an avatar: hair color, eye color and shape, clothes – done. Then a name, a backstory and off you go. And then it starts with the live streaming – this is possible after 18.00 clock Japanese time. In “Reality” viewers are then shown all the avatars that are currently live.
The avatars speak and users can leave comments or distribute valuable virtual gifts. For example, flower bouquets or bowls of Japanese noodle soup. Such a flower bouquet costs almost 100 euros, which is the most valuable gift. The VTuber receives its fee for the app fees of Apple or Google and a Gree commission. So you can really earn money as a VTuber. Currently there is room for new VTubers, because you need an iPhone X or a later version in the current version. The technological requirements are therefore up to date for mobile devices.
Oh great, then I can still get in. Are there already German-speaking VTuber?
No I do not think so. There are some English speaking.
But German is really new. Maybe the German language alone is enough to be new?
Yes, wonderful, then I’ll start right away. Since December 4, 2018, LEAD author and story-maker managing director Björn Eichstädt has been active on “Reality” as “VTuber” ン ュ ン ヘ. His first appearance gave him over 1200 likes and 70 live viewers. The app is currently only available in the Japanese Apple App Store. See you in the virtual universe.
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Björn Eichstädt is the managing partner of the communications agency Story Maker, The agency focuses on supporting technology-driven companies in the areas of PR, digital communications and content development. In addition, Storymaker is active in East Asia with a focus on China and Japan.
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