Over the past few years and specifically over the Covid19 pandemic, a new type of entertainer took the scene by storm. Virtual Entertainers (also known as Virtual Influencers, or VTubers). I also got interested in the industry at this time, with the very first Vtuber to pique my interest being Kanae of the Vtuber group Nijisanji (remember that, we’ll be talking about them later).
Now, this article might be a long one, because I’m well aware that is a pretty new topic for a lot of people. So I’m here to introduce you to it, give you the general gist of what they are, how they work, and of course, the dangers of this unknown world. As time ticks by, we have to learn to accept new changes, and the emerging technologies and trends.
If you were unaware of exactly how mainstream these Vtubers are becoming, then let me summarise for you. The most followed Vtuber on the streaming platform Twitch is IronMouse, who hosts 1.4 million followers and is the most subscribed female streamer on the platform. Some other streamers of note would be Kuzuha, the first male Vtuber to reach 1 million, as well as being Nijisanji’s most subscribed male, Hyakumantenbara Salome who acquired the world record for the fastest Vtuber to hit 1 million (just under 14 days) and is Nijisanji’s most subscribed Vtuber, Vox Akuma, the first streamer of the company to hit 1 million from the English branch and finally Gawr Gura from the Vtuber Company Hololive, a member of the English speaking branch and also the most subscribed Vtuber to date, hosting a whopping 4.24 million on youtube. But streamers aren’t the only Virtual Influencers. They exist elsewhere too, and the most subscribed is Lu do Magalu, who has 6 million followers on her main platform, Instagram.
What’s the appeal?
Vtubers can be a bit of a funny concept to grasp. It’s a bit hard to wrap your mind around why someone would want to sit and watch a virtual character talk about what they got from ASDA when you could watch any other real human figure. But the thing is if you delete the animated persona, these entertainers are just like us; real human beings, with real feelings. Some of them stream for hours I can scarcely imagine: sometimes having multiple streams a day spanning upwards of 7 hours, and they’re very funny.
But it wasn’t just their frequent streams that could work around literally anybody’s schedule. It was their passion, their drive, their humor, and their singing voices (yes, they sing too). These Vtubers are honest, in fact, some of them are no-holds-barred, downright, and perhaps shamefully blunt. Case in point, Vox Akuma is well-known for indulging his fans (known as ‘Kindred’) in not-so-subtle attempts at fanservice (flirting), and Kanae is known for his sociable, honest, well-tempered, and mischievous personality which can only be described by the saying that became synonymous amongst his fanbase - “Kanae lies as he breathes".
Watching these Vtubers interact with one another is synonymous with watching a group of friends on a TV show get along in a comically amusing way, they’re good friends who get to sit down and laugh about something. They give the viewer a chance to escape from the real world and focus on something else for a while, but at the same time, they’re not so disconnected that there’s no room to sit and have an actual laugh with them; a chance to get away from the real world, while still being understanding and comforting of what it is and what it entails; they may be characters.
But behind that character is a real person, and besides the fabricated backstories and impressive 2D figures, there’s a real human being to connect to. You can even meet these Vtubers at real-life conventions, although I admit that the reality behind that is a little strange even for me to grasp, in that you stand in a small room and talk to your favorite influencer on a large TV screen.
At the end of the day, Vox isn’t a Voice Demon with a flirtatious personality, he’s just an average British guy who likes to play games and make wisecracks. Ironmouse isn’t Satan, she’s a Puerto Rican-American with Common Variable Immunodeficiency (CVID). Hyakumantenbara Salome showed images of her Gastroscopy on stream for everybody to see - you typically don’t even see a Vtuber’s skin unless it’s covered by something like coloured gloves or socks, but this woman showed her fanbase her insides on her very first stream.
What’s the Science?
Virtual Influencers use a lot of face and body tracking technologies to get the job done. According to the Wiki (a source which I implore you to remember is by no means credible), Nijisanji members use the iPhone X facial motion capture technology paired with Live2D models rigged by its parent company ANYCOLOUR, and the Nijisanji app which is commercially unavailable. Furthermore, Vtuber Shoto (not a member of Nijisanji, but friendly with some of the company’s streamers) credits Cetra from IronVortex (a Live2D ‘guild’) for his design.
Comparing some of the examples of moving models on the Live2D website with Nijisanji members, I will admit that there are some similarities in the movements, but this is only my personal speculation, and I can by no means say for certain what technology they use, nor should you recognize it as the definitive truth.
Alternatively, I also couldn’t find much for the company Hololive, but there was some speculation (meaning this is by no means confirmed) that their 3D streams use six-point body tracking by an app on your smartphone. The speculation continued that to track finger movement they may use the controllers created by VIVE with preset gestures, Index Controllers or HI5 gloves.
So what’s the problem?
Remember earlier when I said that Vtubers are honest? Well surprise surprise, Vtubers are dishonest. OK, not all of them, but many. The truth is, we don’t know anything about the real people behind them. We don’t know if they are who they say they are (I hate to bust your bubble but the Earth does not house a plethora of demons and vampires and fairies but you’re welcome to prove me wrong) and even more importantly, we don’t know if they use what they say they use. And that’s the real problem.
It’s easy releasing a product with a famous person/character’s face on it. Fame sells! But that’s not always a good thing, because where’s the transparency? When you walk into a store and see Taylor Swift’s face on a lipstick, there is no real guarantee that she actually uses that product (or even had much of a say in its formula, colour range or general creative process). We know this. But the tide changes when the person is selling the product and saying they use it. But there’s no truth. There’s no proof. In a way, there’s no reality. The content is misleading. Scrolling down Lu do Magalu’s Instagram page I spotted many potential advertisements, including one for a mobile gaming controller, a phone game, and even a pair of shoes. Not all influencers lie about the products they use, and many do highlight what's an ad and what isn't,
but the point remains.
A study in Korea compared Virtual Influencer Lil Miquela with Hatsune Miku (you may recall I’ve written a piece on her before back when I spoke on AI, she’s part of the popular musical phenomenon Vocaloid) and the study showed that people showed more trust to Hatsune Miku, and many disagreed with statements inferring that Lil Miquela’s advertisements with Samsung Galaxy products would make them want to purchase one of the products, while agreeing with statements that Hatsune Miku was ‘trustworthy’ and that they feel an interest in the chocolate Pocky because of her advertisements.
This study shows us two different sides of the spectrum; people are and are not willing to buy into things just because of their connections to virtual influencers. The problem that I can’t seem to forget however, is that this is by no means a fair test. Hatsune Miku burst onto the scene back in 2007, while Lil Miquela was created in 2016. This means that some people even grew up with Miku, and have been aware of her for a long time. Of course people view Miku as more trustworthy, they know her more. Trust is built on years of experience, and just like the Laundry Detergent you’ve been using for the past 5 years compared to the brand-new one that was released just last month, it’s pretty obvious who (or what) is going to be considered more honest.
When advertising in the UK, the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing must be followed. This covers all kinds of topics, including adverts being specifically addressed as such (like how Youtube videos that are ads say so) to adverts being explicit in the product and what it can do - including cosmetics specifying which benefits are from the product itself and not how it was applied.
The code was created by ASA and CAP, who even has a specific page for influencers and what they need to know, including how the influencers must be clear on what they’re being paid for, what they are affiliated with, and to be precise in showing what is their content (such as giveaways etc) and what is for the company in question. The page mentions that such ‘pay’ includes anything from money, to holiday packages and gifts.
The lack of truth in advertising isn’t the only problem that the Virtual world faces however. With no real laws on privacy or anything of the sort, these influencers have a few problems of their own to deal with.
They have to create their own rules (which typically tend to include being respectful of themselves, other streamers and the audience, not engaging in conversation about politics and other general things). These rules are present to make their streams a safe space, and in terms of keeping privacy, it seems to be up to the members themselves. Some instances I can think of are how they will not officially disclose any exact locations of where they are or where they have visited besides general comments like certain restaurant chains being far from their city, or even a rather humorous picture upload on Twitter of Nijisanji member Fulgar, who solved the problem of his real face being able to be seen in the reflection, by covering his face in a horse mask.
But this can be a problem. The term ‘doxxing’ has become popular on social media circles for a while now, and for those unaware, it’s a threat to expose a person’s real name, address, family information, etc. Doxxing is a problem in Vtuber circles too, and one of the biggest issues I came across was related to a video made by Youtuber (and now Vtuber) Nux Taku, who claimed that members of VShojo were doxxed by impersonators who pretended to be part of the company. This video sparked a lot of criticism, including his lack of remorse on the subject, and allegations that he neglected to ask the company or the Vtubers under it if they were comfortable with it being created. Eventually, the video was deleted, because members of the company claimed it was a threat to their safety.
Now the UK has some privacy laws that generally extend over data protection, but in terms of protecting a person's actual identity, I struggled to find much. Under the human rights we have a general right to privacy, but generally speaking, there are no real privacy laws, and I couldn't find many laws on disclosing a person's private information without their consent, besides the general argument that they should have a legal basis for doing so. So in reality, doxxing isn't even illegal. In fact, over in Japan, there's a new law that may force online personas with private identities (such as writers or virtual influencers) to reveal their true identities - and dox themselves.
Some Vtubers do have their real selves well known, but from what I can distinguish this is typically those who were already in the public eye; such as CDawgVA who rather comically pretends he is not in fact Vtuber Bubi, influenced (and perhaps persuaded) by his friend IronMouse, or even Vtuber CyYu, who is in fact well-known Voice Actor Alejandro Saab, who actually voices the character Cyno in the game Genshin Impact.
I hope that this article was a chance for you to get to know one of the strangest aspects of the virtual world that we know today, or at least for you to know more about them. There's always a fight for the truth, and that starts with accepting the new realities. Heading into this article, I was well aware that it may be a strange concept to grasp (it was strange for me at first too, because I never even realised that Virtual Influencers was a thing until I actually saw a video of one, and got confused at why there was a small animated boy moving around in the corner of the screen) so I tried to make it as informative as possible, despite the lack of any real laws or truths I could find.
Ingram, M. (2022) Vtuber Becomes Most Subscribed Female on Twitch. GameRant. Available at: https://gamerant.com/vtuber-ironmouse-top-female-twitch-streamer/ (Accessed: November 14, 2022)
Amos, A. (2022). NIJISANJI VTuber Hyakumantenbara Salome hits 1 million YouTube subs in record time, Dexerto. Available at: https://www.dexerto.com/entertainment/nijisanji-vtuber-hyakumantenbara-salome-1-million-youtube-subs-record-1842995/ (Accessed: November 14, 2022)
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The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing. ASA and CAP. Available at: https://www.asa.org.uk/static/47eb51e7-028d-4509-ab3c0f4822c9a3c4/1ec222e7-80e4-4292-a8d46c281b4f91b8/The-Cap-code.pdf (Accessed: November 18, 2022)
Influencers’ guide to making clear that ads are ads. ASA and CAP. Available at: https://www.asa.org.uk/static/47eb51e7-028d-4509-ab3c0f4822c9a3c4/1ec222e7-80e4-4292-a8d46c281b4f91b8/The-Cap-code.pdf (Accessed: November 18, 2022)
Amos, A. (2021) VShojo speaks out after Nux Taku claims VTubers were doxxed by impersonators. Dexerto. Available at: https://www.dexerto.com/entertainment/vshojo-speaks-out-after-claims-vtubers-were-doxxed-by-impersonators-1708603/ (Accessed: November 18, 2022)
Hannan. (2022) Japan’s New Law Might Expose Mangaka’s and Vtubers’ Real Identity To the Public. AnimeSenpai. Available at: https://www.animesenpai.net/japans-new-law-might-expose-mangakas-and-vtubers-real-identity-to-the-public/ (Accessed: November 19, 2022)