Since its inception in 2005, YouTube has become the go-to video sharing platform worldwide, with more than two billion users globally.
In 2019, nine year old Ryan Kaji became the highest-earning YouTuber, beating out more mature personalities like PewDiepie and Logan Paul. Indeed, anyone can be a Youtuber — even virtual characters.
Say hello to virtual Youtubers, or VTubers for short.
VTubers refer to personalities and creators who use an avatar, typically depicted in anime style, in place of actually appearing on camera.
While digital avatars first appeared on YouTube to represent their creators in the early 2000s, Kizuna AI is often considered the first modern VTuber with videos dated back to 2016.
The video below was one of her earliest videos where she mentioned the term ‘VTuber’:
Unlike digital avatars that mimic real humans’ facial features and expressions, Kizuna AI was the first entirely digital creation that made a name for herself on YouTube, voiced by a Japanese voice actor named Nozomi Kasuga.
It might sound unbelievable but Kizuna AI’s popularity rivals some of the biggest celebrities in Japan, having graced a magazine cover decked out in designer clothes and having been selected as a spokesperson for Japan’s National Tourism Organisation.
With more than 10 million subscribers on various social media platforms, Kizuna AI has become a brand with a broad reach and influence. She even has a music career, and held her first US virtual tour this year.
Having the right equipment and technology is essential to becoming a VTuber. Generated using computer graphics, these avatars are often controlled through motion capture and other virtual reality devices.
Full-body-motion rigs (that don’t come cheap) are often required to capture the performer’s movements to be rendered to be animated 2D or 3D models.
Nowadays, however, a basic webcam and face-tracking software can suffice, as the evolution of technology has made it more affordable for aspiring VTubers.
There are two different sets of performers; the one who act out the characters and have their facial expressions captured, and the ones who provide the character’s voice, usually professional voice actors.
As live streaming and videos became more popular during the pandemic, the demand for VTubers has risen as well. A YouTube survey that found 47% of all viewers worldwide are open to watching content from fictional or virtual characters. As surreal as it may seem, it seems like VTubers are here to stay.
Not to mention that a HypeAuditor study found that virtual influencers get nearly three times more engagement than traditional influencers, making numerous brands and investors more eager to be a part of the virtual creators’ landscape, consisting of VTubers and virtual influencers.
The profitability is undeniable. Many investors want a slice of the action; the creators of Kizuna AI, Activ8, successfully raised a $9.3M (1B yen) Series C round last year for its global expansion of its VTubers.
A similar success story was also experienced by COVER, a VTuber management agency responsible for 16 of the top 20 VTuber channels by reach, which has raised $6.6 M to date.
Aside from Kizuna AI, virtual influencers are popping up on other social media sites too. Are you one of the 3.1 million Instagram followers of Lil Miquela?
Unlike your usual VTubers who are animated with predominantly anime features, Lil Miquela is a CGI model with photorealistic features. If you ask us, she dips a little too close into the uncanny valley.
Although existing only virtually, she has starred in campaigns for major brands such as Calvin Klein (alongside Bella Hadid) and Samsung (alongside real people Millie Bobby Brown and Steve Aoki). She is the highest-paid virtual influencer on Instagram, earning approximately $8,500 per post.
According to Christopher Travers, the founder of virtualhumans.org, a website that documents the industry, the benefits of using VTubers and virtual influencers are clear. “They are cheaper to work with than humans in the long term, are 100% controllable, can appear in many places at once, and, most importantly, they never age or die.”
Most importantly, is it a sign that we’re truly headed towards the metaverse?