You may have seen the Black Mirror episode titled Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too, where we see a hologram of Ashley O (played by Miley Cyrus) perform on stage. While the episode gives us a glimpse of the future of entertainment, this technology is already here, and virtual performers have slowly been taking over the entertainment world one byte at a time. From singing synthesisers to in-game concerts, the music world is definitely breaking new ground in entertainment technology.
Concert within a game
What do you get when you put a popular EDM star into one of the world’s biggest MMORPG games? An insanely massive audience.
In February this year, EDM DJ Marshmello (who performs with his signature marshmallow helmet) held a live virtual concert within Fortnite – it was staged entirely within the third-person shooter game in a location called Pleasant Park, complete with an avatar of him and a number of dancers recorded in live motion capture.
The use of weapons was disabled for the entirety of the 10-minute event to ensure that everyone could enjoy the show, where players could “dance” using in-game emotes. A staggering 10.7 million players logged in for the show – the biggest moment in Fortnite’s history.
League of Legends and Kpop stars
Last November, an all-girl Kpop quartet called K/DA – comprising virtual members Kai’Sa, Akali, Evelynn, and Ahril – was entirely created by the popular MOBA game, League of Legends simply to sell skins (in-game costumes).
Instead of in-game concerts, the band debuted to a live audience at the 2018 League of Legends World Championships in Seoul using augmented reality, where the real-life singers performed on stage with their virtual personas projected backstage. Their first and only song, Pop/Stars, garnered 5 million views in 24 hours on Youtube, breaking the record for the most viewed Kpop group debut MV at the time. To date, their official MV has surpassed 260 million views.
While K/DA’s members were digitally created, their presence was shot into virtual infamy partly because they’re actually voiced by real-life pop stars. Ahri and Akali are voiced by Miyeon and Soyeon from Kpop group (G)I-DLE, while Evelynn and Kai’Sa are voiced by American pop artists Madison Beers and Jaira Barns.
Step by step: Virtual Boy Band
Even if you’re a fan of Japanese boy bands, chances are you’ve never heard of Eight of Triangle and ARP (Artists Republic Production) that debuted in 2015 and 2017 respectively. That’s because they’re digitally-created virtual boy bands.
Both bands made their name by performing to a live audience using motion capture and augmented-reality technology – unknown professional singers and dancers that represent these AR boys perform in real-time behind the stage and interact with the audience.
Although their shows are technically 3D projections on stage, fans still go wild at their concerts. To give these bands more credibility, the characters have their own Twitter accounts, biographies, and even Youtube vlogs. They even do interviews on TV.
Music crowdsourcing: Vocaloids
Characterised by her long, turquoise pigtails and schoolgirl-inspired outfit, 16-year-old Hatsune Miku performed her first live concert in 2009 at the Animelo Summer Live in Japan before making her way to Singapore later that year for an Anime Festival Asia concert in front of a sold-out crowd.
Today, she’s one of the most prolific singers in the world, having sung over 100,000 original songs. She’s also had collaborations with companies like Coca Cola, Toyota, and Google, and performed opening acts for Lady Gaga. There’s also a Miku Expo, a series of concerts held around the world since 2014, in countries like Mexico, USA, Taiwan, Indonesia, China, and Hong Kong.
Not a bad achievement for someone who doesn’t exist.
Hatsune Miku is a Vocaloid – basically a software of synthesised voice which can be used by anyone who wants to make music with her voice. Of course, there are other Vocaloid characters that make up the voice bank, comprising recordings of various actors or singers, but none are as popular as Miku, who also has video games and merchandise to her name.
As a virtual persona, she performs on stage as a 3D holographic avatar, and her songs are provided by individual creators (using the Vocaloid software), making her the first truly crowdsourced virtual talent. The repertoire of songs performed at concerts sometimes comprise songwriting contest winners, or selected by Miku’s creators, Crypton Future Media.
Anyone with the software can become a music producer, and creators can upload their homemade music videos on Youtube, where they’ll be viewed by her millions of fans. While Miku isn’t real, she does pave the way for real people who want to make a name for themselves.
Youtubers without a face
You may have heard of “VTubers” – or “virtual YouTubers” – who are basically cute, female anime characters on Youtube who mostly stream Youtube-y things like singing, dancing and live streaming their chats with viewers. Created in 2016, Kizuna AI is probably the most popular VTuber (over 2.5 million followers) who’s known for her music performances. When she held her own “live” birthday concert in Tokyo in June this year, tickets for the event were sold out almost immediately.
VTubers started out as a Japanese phenomenon, but the trend quickly spread over to China, where video sharing website Bilibili has seen thousands of virtual broadcasters entering the market in recent years. They recently held a Bilibili Macro Link VR concert featuring over 20 famous virtual idols, including Kizuna AI, Hatsune Miku and China’s own Vocaloid, Luo Tianyi – the event attracted nearly 10,000 fans.
What makes VTubers interesting is that the personas are created by regular people using motion-capture and filming devices, creating avatars that mirror their real-life movements and voice to varying degrees of realism. Viewers are often drawn by this type of entertainment because they seem more realistic and accessible than professionally-produced idols.
The future of entertainment?
Technology – in particular, augmented reality, motion capture, and voice banks – plays a big part in this future of entertainment. It gives everyday folks a chance to be part of the rapidly-growing talent industry, and existing performers the chance to reinvent themselves in a digital world.
In the near future, it won’t be surprising to see more performers coming from an untapped virtual market of amateurs with digital tools.