About five years ago, people were getting tired of webcams. Let me explain. For over a decade, people have been playing video games online and either recording or streaming them. People (including me) who watch these people watch because of the video game being played but also because of the personality on display. These streamers are one part gameplay footage showcase and one part vlog. The ones who do it live are in direct communication with a chat room full of fans who help guide conversation. The standard practice is for the streamer to put their webcam image near the bottom of the screen showing their gameplay.

A digital production company in Japan named Activ8 created Kizuna AI, a young anime girl who played video games for an audience. She was voice acted by veteran anime voice actress Nozumi Kasuga. AI would play video games, talk, and even curse when the game got too hard. The combination of a real person performing an animated character was not exactly new but technology had advanced well past tech demos. Her videos were not live but it was a start. AI became super popular and was even “hired” by Japan’s National Tourism Organization as a cultural ambassador.

The trend started to pick up momentum in Japan and people jumped on the bandwagon. Production collectives sprouted up to support these new streamers and their colorful characters. It feels like they were created based off of the idol system Japan already had in place where companies create characters and cast people in the roles. They are totally sponsored and protected by these larger companies. The popularity of these “Virtual YouTubers” expanded beyond YouTube and into Twitch, the main platform for live-streaming games. Japanese companies decided to use this new phenomenon for advertising.

In the United States, VTubers are more organic and homegrown. Lacking the power of larger companies, VTubers either create their own avatars or commission them. Lately, the practice has started to creep more into my viewing habits. While I thought Japanese and other Asian VTubers were cute, I do not speak their language. English-speaking VTubers weirded me out at first but I have come to really enjoy them. One of the artists I follow on Twitch (DeerBits) creates VTuber avatars for their friends and for commissions.

How it works is similar to the technology that brought us the “I’m Not a Cat” Lawyer. Basically, an artist creates pieces of an avatar and forms then into a humanoid shape. This can either be a 2D or 3D model. They them “rig” the model for animation sort of like a digital marionette. The avatar is then bound to the performer through a program that translates their movement into the movement of the avatar. When they speak, the mouth moves. When they move around, the avatar moves around. When they blink, the avatar blinks. It is really marvelous technology. I am interested to see where it goes in the US and beyond.


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