Anonymous influencers are not a new phenomenon. Think of Marshmello basing his success entirely around his music in an iconic helmet or Corpse Husband continually charming the internet with his deep voice and veiny hands. Bygone is the era of a public figure’s influence centered solely around their physical existence. So what’s up with virtual, anime-inspired avatars popping up on the YouTube sphere lately? How do these motion-tracked personalities work? And why are YouTube stars like PewDiePie and Pokimane so eager to jump on the trend?
Virtual YouTubers (shortened VTubers) are online entertainers disguising their appearance using a customised digital avatar. These avatars are typically two-dimensional or three-dimensional creations that resemble anime characters with large eyes and boisterous personalities.
Animated with voices provided by the creator themselves, some of these avatars have complex and mythical backstories whereas others are presented as average creators who sing, dance and live-stream video games.
VTubing is a movement which took years to achieve the phenomenal status it has today. The community began back in 2011 with Ami Yamato, a virtual vlogger based in London who has a penchant for Starbucks and strolls around a seemingly-real world. Harbouring a mix of vlogs, movie parodies and sketches on her channel, the pioneer was quick to be followed up by a well-known character that is almost 60 years old: Barbie.
In 2015, the California-based toy company Mattel jumped on the concept of virtual vlogging as a marketing stunt to appeal to an increasing digital audience. Actively posting two vlogs a month, which takes over four weeks to produce, the teen vlogger tackles various cultural conversations and YouTube challenges on her channel.
Though virtual vlogging hatched into existence in 2011, the trend really took off with Kizuna AI’s debut in 2016. Credited with coining the term ‘VTuber’ herself, the virtual creator is hailed as the pioneer of the peculiar genre. Kizuna’s avatar plays on Japan’s famous anime tropes, featuring a bubbly girl donned head-to-toe in a white sailor’s uniform with giant bows and opera gloves. The VTuber runs two accounts—her main channel includes music covers, internet challenges and even a virtual bar where you can sit back and just hear Kizuna talk for minutes at a stretch. Her other account, AI Games, is dedicated to gameplay videos such as Fall Guys, Minecraft and Beat Saber.
Close to 3 million subscribers on her channels, Kizuna AI became the first VTuber to reach a global audience. Her large-scale impact even secured her the position as a cultural ambassador for the Japan National Tourism Organisation. Other virtual content creators were quick to witness a boost in following ever since Kizuna’s game-changing success. The OG VTuber ultimately paved the way for more creators specialising in all types of content ranging from house tours to mukbangs and ASMRs.
One thing to note before we dive into all of the technical aspects of the genre is that VTubers aren’t complete AI creations. There is a human behind their actions, controlling the avatar majorly through motion capture.
The process usually features creators fitted with motion trackers to record their movement and recreate various actions. These actions are then mapped over a shape and proportions of an animated character which is then rendered onto a background or live-streamed. This technology is what Kizuna operates on, thereby allowing the creator to interact with fans in real time at exhibitions, give interviews on live TV and even perform in concerts with the avatar at the forefront. VTubers are also responsible for voicing their own characters—although some of them use audio distortions to morph their speech in order to maintain complete anonymity.
But all of this sounds a bit labour-intensive and time-consuming, doesn’t it? While VTuber-dedicated agencies like Hololive Productions and Activ8 use Hollywood-grade equipment to crank out music videos, skits and game streams just about every day, smaller creators often rely on various animation and avatar creation software like Steam’s VRoid Studio, VTuber Maker and FaceRig to keep up with the fast-paced world of YouTube content.
“You don’t need to be artistic to use the program,” a top review on the Steam store reads. “You can use the tools provided to make accessories like horns, wings, tails, glasses and earrings.” Frequent users of these software back up the fact that “with enough practice and skill you can make top-notch creative models.”
After their initial resounding success in Japan, VTubers have found western integrations in the recent past. Canadian YouTuber Pokimane debuted a pastel-coloured 3D anime model of herself last year during one of her Twitch streams. PewDiePie is also among other famous YouTubers who have dipped their toes into the wonderful world of VTubing.
Global fans, when interviewed by the BBC, stated that the biggest contributor to the rise of virtual YouTuber is “the huge audience outside Japan who normally have interests in Japanese media and culture such as anime.” In the same interview, Takeshi Osaka, founder of the company behind Kizuna AI stressed that a VTuber’s pseudo-realistic presence is what makes them so appealing. “What separates VTubers from regular anime characters is that you can believe they actually exist,” he added.
In a report released by YouTube, the platform highlighted the fact that 47 per cent of its viewers are open to “watching content from creators or characters who are fictional or virtual.” “We saw VTubers start to take off right at the end of 2017…and it’s continued to grow ever since,” said Kevin Allocca, head of culture and trends at YouTube to the BBC. He further pointed to Kizuna AI as a major influence on the spike in VTubers’ global popularity.
VTubing essentially blurs the line between AI and reality, opening up a realm of endless possibilities for online creators. “No-cam streams are so comfy,” Pokimane said during her viral ‘VTube-worthy’ livestream. “Especially because it gets tiring to get people to stop commenting on you. I’d rather have people comment on this cute little anime drawing of me, you know?”
In the past, the YouTube star has been criticised for her ‘daring’ livestreams without any makeup—an expectation that pressurises streamers when it comes to their looks. Influencers on Twitch, especially women, are expected to show their faces and look good while streaming gameplays.
“I have noticed a decrease in viewership on days I don’t use a face cam, sometimes as much as 15 to 20 per cent,” admitted Twitch streamer Nikatine in an interview with Polygon. The streamer further listed out the fact that it’s not always feasible for a livestreamer to show up on-stream. “It’s challenging when there’s a heat wave to use the lights and makeup,” Nikatine continued. “There are plenty of days I just want to relax, not wear any makeup and just stream. When I don’t use a face cam, I get messages all the time in chat like, ‘why no cam, streamer?’ and ‘streamer, use cam’ and it makes me not want to do it even more.”
This is the perfect breeding ground for VTubers. A digital avatar proves useful for online personalities who want to stream when they’re not “feeling their best” or for a whole new generation of influencers who want to maintain their anonymity yet build an intimate relationship with their audience.
In less than three years, VTubers have essentially morphed from a subculture to big business. Kizuna AI can now be found in ads for instant cup noodles and eye drops. Dedicated VTuber talent agencies like Hololive—where VTubers undergo idol-level training via interviews and auditions—further give the trend some well-deserved PR. GREE, one of Japan’s biggest mobile app developers plans to invest $88 million over the next two years into developing virtual talents.
“We believe that human beings need avatars beyond nicknames and profile pictures,” said GREE spokesman Kensuke Sugiyama to the BBC. “Although virtual talent is currently a niche area of entertainment, we believe that attractive 3D avatar characters and their activities in virtual worlds will take people to the next stage of the internet.”
With #VTuber gathering over 614 thousand videos from over 21 thousand channels on YouTube, there is no doubt that these digital influencers will change the future of entertainment. They could change how brands market their products and how we interact with technology. And as we shift into a digital-first era, the concept of a VTuber is becoming increasingly relevant and feasible.