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  • Kyle Chua

Virtual Idols Are Taking China by Storm

The Chinese Communist Party hasn’t been shy about its disapproval of idol worship among the country’s youth, launching a campaign in 2021 to crack down on what it considers a toxic celebrity culture.

Ayayi, who's often regarded as China's first meta-human. Credit: Weibo

The government raised concerns about how the celebrities themselves and the fan clubs that support them are poisoning the minds of the youth and harming their mental wellbeing. In response, authorities took aim at popular personalities in music and movies, scrutinising them in an attempt to curb their influence and exposure.

Zheng Shuang and Zhao Wei were among the actresses that were targeted by the recent campaign, both of whom were practically erased from Chinese social media sites and online platforms. Broadcasters were also ordered to stop airing any content that either of the two appeared in. Shuang was accused of tax evasion and fined US$46 million. For Wei, however, no formal explanation was ever given.

The campaign has made it ripe for virtual idols – artificially created digital avatars that the government knows won’t misbehave – to shoot to stardom. And they have not only captured public attention but also turned themselves into hot commodities. According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), Guangzhou-based research group iiMedia predicts the market size of virtual humans could reach 333.5 billion yuan in 2023 from 107.5 billion yuan in 2021.

This growth is said to come with the rise in consumer acceptance of the technology in China. James Cheng, a Senior Project Manager at global consulting firm Roland Berger, told SCMP that the reception of virtual humans can be partially attributed to a generational change in China’s business and social environments.

“The Millennial generation in China grew up watching cartoons, which makes them receptive to virtual characters, not to mention Gen-Zs who are digital natives themselves,” he explained.

Luo Tianyi, one of China's most popular virtual idols, performing at the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022. Credit: Vocaloid Live Concert via YouTube

China’s Big Tech can already see the potential of the technology and is looking to capitalise, with plans in place to incorporate virtual humans in their respective business models. These include the likes of Alibaba, Baidu and Bytedance.

Alibaba, for example, leverages its cloud technology to provide virtual human customisation services to merchants, giving them the ability to create digital influencers that can promote their brand’s services and products. It’s the same for Baidu that only this March launched its business-facing virtual human for sign language services.

These virtual humans, as mentioned earlier, can act as brand ambassadors the same way human celebrities do. StarHeir’s virtual idols, for instance, have endorsed and worked with companies like DFS, Sennheiser and Clarins, among others, as SCMP reports. It’s no different from how, say, KFC uses Colonel Sanders in its ads, commercials and other promotions.

Another way China’s virtual idols can generate revenue is to have them record their own music and star in music videos. This is supposedly the plan for Metamuse from Musiness, a relative newcomer among the country’s virtual idols.

Other popular virtual idols include Noonoouri and Lil Miquela, both of whom have worked with luxury fashion brands and are sought after in the industry. There’s also Luo Tianyi, a singer who performed in the 2021 Spring Festival Gala, and Jyanme, who has amassed more than 100 million total views on her online videos, along with Ayayi, who's said to be an NFT artist.

While Chinese lawmakers aren't entirely in favour of virtual idols, they're not against the idea either. The government reportedly encouraged the National Radio and Television Administration, a Chinese media watchdog, to advance the use of virtual humans as part of its five-year roadmap. But a recent state-sponsored report, as cited by Verdict, also warns about how these synthetic personalities can eventually lead to a "crisis of trust in real-life society".

For now, though, the use of the technology seems to be a win-win for both the companies that profit off of them and the government. Because these virtual idols aren’t human, they don’t get tired or have any emotions. They can essentially be programmed to do anything the company wants and be anywhere at any time. Additionally, they are safer and more reliable assets with lesser political risk than human celebrities. They can’t do anything that would stray away from the government’s ideals or stir up a scandal, unless, of course, programmed to do so. Simply put, they can be controlled.

“You do not have to worry about ‘rollovers’ of their public image,” said Musiness CEO Tong Xiaoyan. “And their schedule would be much more flexible than real humans.” The term “rollover” is usually used online to describe the sudden fall of public figures due to scandals.

Lil Miquela. Credit: Lil Miquela via YouTube

The big caveat to virtual idols is that they are costly to develop, maintain and promote. Making a single three-dimensional virtual human can cost millions of yuan and possibly require the talents of a whole team of people. The profit margin for them, despite the industry booming, is said to be quite thin, which can pose as a roadblock for companies looking to invest in the technology.

There are also questions about how sustainable these virtual idols can be in the long term, given the challenges of promoting them and maintaining their popularity. Some fans think they don’t have much personality and exist only to make money – a problem that can be partly attributed to technological limitations. Since a lot of the inner workings behind these virtual idols are still pretty new, a lot of them can still give off that uncanny valley feeling, when it comes to their likeness and movements.

Still, the virtual idol boom doesn’t appear to be just some passing fad. Rather, it’s an early sign of how the technologies they represent – AR, VR and eventually the metaverse – could perhaps one day become ubiquitous in daily human life. The reception and popularity of these virtual idols suggest that part of China’s population is prepared to embrace and venture into the concept of the metaverse – a term that has gained a lot of buzz as of late.

Internet giants in the country, like their U.S. counterparts, are in a heated race to come out with their own metaverse platform, so it could only be a matter of time before fans can interact with virtual idols directly in a virtual world. And that possibility excites investors and stakeholders of virtual humans, who believe that the metaverse can expand the revenue opportunities of this emerging technology.

  • Virtual idols are becoming immensely popular in China, with a market size that's forecasted to reach 333.5 billion yuan in 2023, according to a Chinese research group.

  • These artificially created digital avatars are now working with brands as ambassadors, recording their own music and performing in live events. And much of their success can reportedly be attributed to how receptive the younger generations have been to them.

  • China's Big Tech and the government appear to be supporting the development of the technology behind virtual humans, with the likes of Alibaba, Baidu and Bytedance already investing large sums.

  • This appears to be an early sign of how the technologies that these virtual idols represent – AR, VR and the metaverse – could also be one day embraced by China's citizens.

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