From Vocaloid to VTubers: The World of Virtual Idols Explained

Created 5/30/2022 10:48:37 PM in anime | ruel | guest post | hatsune miku |

A convenient guide to the virtual idol fandom's past, present, and future. From Vocaloid to VTubers!

If you're a music buff, you know there's nothing quite like the thrill of a live performance. The buzz of excitement before the concert begins, the flashing neon lights, the adrenaline rush when the beat drops -- it all makes for one heck of a euphoric experience.

That holds true for rock bands, singer-songwriters, and virtual idols alike.

There's just one glaring difference for virtual idol concerts, though:

There's nobody on stage! (Physically.)

In this guest post, you'll:

  • Get a crash course on virtual idols, from Vocaloid to VTubers
  • Discover the virtual idol fandom's past, present, and future

Ready to get started? Strap in, digitize, and let's go virtual!






In the Beginning, There Was Miku

Many people's first foray into the world of virtual idols was with Hatsune Miku.

Who is Hatsune Miku?

Hatsune Miku is the avatar of a voice synthesizing program that allows users to input syllables and adjust the pitch to make the program produce a singing voice.

Miku was created to be the stunning visuals behind this synthetic voice -- a persona who fans could grow attached to more easily than a simple machine. She was given a personality, dance moves, different costumes, and even multiple hairstyles.

Idol culture is a major part of contemporary Japanese society, so it stands to reason that a cute anime girl singing and dancing up on stage is able to draw more of a crowd than a computer engineer sitting at a desk pushing buttons!

Hatsune Miku takes to the stage as a hologram. She is projected in front of a large audience and performs her hit songs to a cheering crowd. It may seem strange at first to those unfamiliar with Miku (and the Vocaloid universe of which she is a part), but the atmosphere is undeniably fervent: fans will cheer Miku on, wave their glowsticks, and sing along when prompted!


Other Vocaloid characters

Several other characters were added to the Vocaloid umbrella as Miku's popularity skyrocketed, including the graceful Megurine Luka and inseperable twins Kagamine Rin and Len.

This is an easy investment for the showrunners: not only can they sell out a packed crowd of hundreds and thousands, they don't have to pay their stars a single dime while doing it!



Kizuna Ai

Then, Hayao Miyazaki Said, "Let There Be Kizuna!"

For all their cost-effective (and of course, fully controllable) razzle dazzle, Hatsune Miku and her Vocaloid counterparts were -- at the end of the day -- artificial creations. Yes, they were a fresh entertainment phenomenon, but for some they no doubt bordered on uncanny valley territory at the same time.

That "drawback" begged a simple question:

"What if there was an actual human being beyond all the virtual smoke and mirrors?"

Enter the next evolution -- the virtual YouTuber, or VTuber -- and their first queen, Kizuna Ai.

Who is Kizuna Ai?

Kizuna Ai would sit at her desk while motion tracking software traced her facial movements and replicated them on a stylized anime avatar. The said avatar, complete with fictional backstory and unique personality traits, would talk with users in her chat room and play games while streaming.

Streaming can be a very stressful job. Having so much of your privacy out in the open for the whole online and offline world to see is daunting to say the least -- especially for the unprepared.

But Kizuna Ai struck gold and found a magical sweet spot:

Stream to the masses, but do it behind the safety of a virtual avatar!

That way, you can do what you love while still keeping you real-world identity a secret.

Kizuna Ai

The appeal of Kizuna Ai

Kizuna Ai basked in her newfound popularity, occupying the coveted spot of most subscribed virtual YouTuber from her 2016 debut until 2021.

You were no longer watching a lifeless hologram performing choreographed routines; you were now watching a real person (albeit, cloaked behind a virtual avatar)! Anything was possible now that a living, breathing mind was in control -- from interactive engagement with a chat room of loyal fans, to memorable mishaps live on "camera"!

Fans loved Ai's chaotic energy and the personal touch to be found in her chat interactions. Memes sprouted from her streams. Online message threads and compilation videos spread like wildfire through the Internet -- but mainly for those in the know.

Knowledge about Kizuna Ai (and VTubers in general) was still very limited for the general public. For all their lovable charm and appeal, they never managed to cross that fateful bridge into the mainstream.

Things would change for VTubers around the world, however, with the creation of Hololive.




And On the Seventh Day, Came Hololive

What is Hololive?

Hololive (stylized hololive in official logos and merchandise) is a virtual YouTuber agency that launched in 2018, initially envisioned as something akin to pop idol group AKB48.

They say that history repeats itself, and that was fully apparent here: much like Hatsune Miku and the many other Vocaloid characters that followed her meteoric rise, VTuber queen Kizuna Ai had successfully laid the foundations for other virtual streamers to emerge onto the scene.


Hololive characters

Hololive consists of a vast array of colorful characters, each with their own unique design aesthetics and personalities.

Here's a small snapshot of the lineup:

  • Kiryu Coco, a dragon girl who enjoys corrupting the Japanese VTubers with naughty English words
  • Akai Haato, a dual personality psychopath known for her abhorrent cooking recipes
  • Inugami Korone, a dog with the endurance of a soldier whose incredibly long streams and high-pitched squeal gained notoriety

As you may have surmised from the descriptions above, the beauty of these VTubers is that they're not the picture-perfect angels you'd expect from a group like AKB48. The longer the girls streamed, the more they came out of their shells and started acting freely.

The appeal of Hololive

While unbridled freedom may seem like a detriment to some stalwarts of strict idol culture (the company that created them, no doubt), it actually allowed audiences to connect with these girls even more. After all, they played games, went to the bathroom, ate, drank -- in a nutshell, were just so human!

The beauty of streaming is being able to have that more personal touch. Unlike a YouTube video where you as the viewer are strictly passive, in a livestream you're an active member of and contributor to the content itself. You can ask the streamer questions, rib them for their blunders, and even donate money to them!




The Present Day

The virtual YouTuber fandom continues to evolve, both in number and scope: not only are there now male streamers like Holostars, there's also a slew of avatars from outside Japan like Hololive EN and Hololive ID!

This growth and diversity has allowed the VTuber phenomenon to explode into the mainstream (something that Kizuna Ai strove so hard to achieve). The fact that Reddit communities like r/Hololive frequently occupy estate on Reddit's r/All curated community is tantamount to this.

Hololive's genius marketing and on-point casting have helped the project enter the headspace of people both unfamiliar and otherwise uninterested in Hatsune Miku, Kizuna Ai, and virtual idols altogether.

While cast members graduate to pursue solo projects and new arrivals are frequently introduced, the VTuber train seems to have had its brakes cut with no signs of slowing down!



Hatsune Miku

The Future

What's on the horizon for virtual idols and VTubers?

It's something that's definitely up for debate.

On one hand virtual YouTubers are currently in their prime, with more and more indie personas sprouting up by the day.

On the other hand, the interest in the Vocaloid concerts of yore (at least outside Japan) seems to be dipping by the day. After all, why would you pay to watch a machine-made hologram perform programmed routines on stage -- when (essentially) human VTubers flail about lovably on camera for free?!

That being said, respect where respect is due: Without the former, there would be no latter. Without Hatsune Miku, there would be no Hololive.

And besides, Hatsune Miku is still a popular-enough character to be featured in a plethora of merch, collabs, and other franchises all year round. From adorable Nendoroids to addictive Project Diva rhythm games, Miku's iconic appearance lends itself well to consumer tastes.

And who knows? If old-school MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or recent movies like Belle are anything to go by, maybe all members of the human race are destined to live our lives through the guise of a virtual avatar someday.

What an interesting world that would be...



Niji Sanji

Conclusion: Virtual reality is the new reality

If you asked a person a decade or two ago whether they'd be willing to pay money to see a hologram's concert, they'd scoff dismissively and brush you aside.

But fast-forward to 2022, and how the tables have turned: Hololive even has its own annual pay-per-view festival!

Evidently there truly is a market for anime music and idol lovers who would rather watch spectacles from the comfort of their own living rooms.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course: while it's important not to form parasocial relationships with people you've never met in real life, if those people's streams are a helpful distraction from the stress of everyday life, then is it really so strange as to why they became so popular? Especially during the pandemic, where people need a constant stream of videos to keep them occupied throughout the day?

VTubers have a bright future ahead of them and break boundaries for the traditional idol culture rooted in Japan. No longer must these girls be treated as angels who can do no wrong but they can be presented to the public as real people and be loved that much more for it.

What is your opinion on virtual idols? Do you have a favorite? Be sure to let us know!


Other articles you'll enjoy

For more explorations of anime and manga, check out the articles below:

  1. 5 Best Anime Songs To Tell Someone You Love Them
  2. 5 Crucial Lessons that Fruits Basket Teaches You About Bonds
  3. Anime Girls: 18 Cute Figures to Fawn Over This Year (Part 2)

Thanks for reading!


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