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VTubers: Another rabbit hole to fall into


More Kawaii than a Real-Person Live Streamer

By Laishram Niteshwor Singh

The novel coronavirus pandemic is providing an opportunity for people to discover ways in which they can practice physical distancing while bridging social distance, and Virtual Reality (VR) offers a means to do so.

Live streaming has become increasingly popular, with most streamers presenting their real-life appearance. However, Virtual YouTubers (VTubers), virtual 2D or 3D avatars that are voiced by humans, are emerging as live streamers and attracting a growing viewership in East Asia.

This Japanese phenomenon has exploded in the West in the last year or so with more and more youngsters turning to it for a new way to express themselves, especially during the pandemic. Like K-pop, once you are hooked to it, there’s no turning back. But again, this wasn’t anything new in Japan, where using a 3D model’s visage to replace that of a human being was already somewhat mainstream and had been for years.

VTubers started popping up towards the end of 2017 and then thousands of subscribers gave way to millions. Take the example of Kizuna AI’s channel, which had around 200,000 subscribers in 2016-17 but that figure is now close to three million on YouTube. Kizuna AI raps, dances, takes fitness tests and what not.

Japan has seen a surge in the number of these virtual entertainers in the past couple of years. The “population” has surpassed 9,000, up from 200 at the beginning of 2018, according to Tokyo web analytics company User Local.

Although VTubers are a fairly new phenomenon, the motion capture technology behind them is not. Hollywood has used it for years. Actors wearing suits studded with over 50 sensors perform movements that become high-quality animations. A character created in a studio can be beamed to anywhere with a high-speed internet connection. Data collected by the sensors can be turned into computer graphics and transmitted in real time.

Hololive, an entertainment agency under Cover Corporation has one of the largest collection of Vtuber talents. Hololive’s rapid rise outside Asia compared to its competition has made it a valuable source of insight into how VTubers operate.

Hololive’s Kiryu Coco, who debuted in 2019, is one of the company’s largest earners via YouTube Super Chats. Viewers pay real money to highlight their messages in chat to stand out in the sea of comments or to be read on one of many regular Super Chat reading streams, something traditional streamers don’t typically do.

Why are people giving exorbitant amounts of money to have their chat read by a streamer disguised as an anime girl? In many ways, it is an appreciation for the art of what the streamer does, or simply enjoying the content. In other ways, it goes into the “waifu” culture that is in and of itself another article.

Of course with Vtubing already established, digital avatars will surely be on the rise and not just for streaming or marketing, but for other purposes as well and One thing is for sure, Vtubing is here to stay and as technology gets more affordable and more advanced we see it becoming more and more mainstream.

(The writer is a final year student of MA Mass Communication, Manipur University and an admirer of VTubers.)

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