Vtubers are already taking over YouTube, but is this really the future of content creation?
Gawr Gura. Kizuna Ai. PewDiePie. Usada Pekora. Pokimane.
They’re all YouTube celebrities who are also vtubers!
Vtuber is short for virtual YouTuber, a type of content creator that uses a two-dimensional or three-dimensional digital avatar in their videos.
These avatars are generated using computer graphics and are often controlled using motion capture (mocap) and other virtual reality devices. The term was first coined by Kizuna Ai, the world’s first Japanese vtuber.
The birth of virtual YouTubers
You may have heard of her, or even seen her a couple of times — Kizuna Ai is arguably Japan’s most recognized vtuber. She’s a bubbly and spontaneous girl easily identified by her brown hair, pink ribbon hairband, and white sailor uniform. And she’s not even real.
Yes, she’s a virtual creation.
Here is one of her debut videos on YouTube, where she first used the term “virtual YouTuber” which was eventually shortened to vtuber.
Now to be clear, there is a person behind Kizuna, but they’ve never been seen. All we know of Kizuna is what we see on the channel. Actually, Kizuna (or simply Ai-chan) runs two accounts, with her main channel featuring videos that vary from music, online challenges, and even a virtual bar where you can just listen to Kizuna casually talking.
Her other account, A.I.Games, is a channel born out of a partnership between her and game development company Asobimo. A.I. Games contains Ai-chan’s Let’s Play videos with games such as Fall Guys, Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto V, and even the VR rhythm game Beat Saber.
Kizuna Ai’s impact became so big in Japan that she was even hired to become an ambassador for one of Japan National Tourism Organization’s (JNTO) travel campaigns.
With Kizuna Ai paving the way for vtubers, the new trend was immediately picked up by the locals.
Kizuna Ai’s steps were followed by more Japanese vtubers, all with their own musings and exotic personalities. Just like our regular human YouTubers, the video content from these vtubers varies from house tours (of their own virtual space), mukbangs, language lessons, ASMR, and of course playing games.
So how does vtubing work?
As motion capture rigs became cheaper and virtual reality setups became simpler, vtubers have become the next big thing in livestreaming.
Vtubers aren’t actually AI creations. There’s a human behind their actions, controlling their avatars through motion capture, or some other means.
Most vtubers use motion capture or a mocap suit to detect the user’s facial and body movements. Here’s an example of how that works from Vtuber CodeMiko:
The person behind CodeMiko is a woman called Youna, and she recently revealed that her Xsens mocap suit cost her US$13,500. Here’s what happens to Miko whenever Youna takes off the suit:
The suit, together with the use of Unreal Engine Software, gives life to CodeMiko, a virtual Twitch streamer in an adorable pink twin bun hairstyle.
A more achievable, cheaper vtuber setup is used by the talents of Hololive, an agency that manages a group of virtual YouTubers.
“For streamers, we use some function that’s similar to Animoji on iPhone X so that the characters can move easily,” explained Motoaki “YAGOO” Tanigo, the CEO of COVER Corporation, Hololive’s parent company. YAGOO boasted that their vtuber talents are able to hold a 2D stream at the comfort of their own homes without the need to drop by a studio complete with a full virtual reality setup.
Three-dimensional characters are a bit more complicated and requires a full studio equipment.
“Once they reach 50,000 subscribers, we then offer them a 3D version of themselves and that’s when they start to come into the studio to do the streams,” said YAGOO. “After reaching 50,000 subs, we give them a 3D version similar to Kizuna Ai — it’s like a service from us to the talent.”
In Japan, vtubers hold different reasons to enter the virtual reality scene, but most of these streamers more often than not take the vtuber path because they do not have the same confidence that normal streamers have.
“It’s hard for girls to show their faces if they’re not good-looking,” said YAGOO. While they may be unfortunate in this situation, the vtuber business exists to provide these streamers a system to showcase their personality and at the same time offer an alternate version of themselves that they can be confident in on-screen.
For those who want to give vtubing a try, there are programs like VRoid Studio where users can create and customize their avatars for free. Once you got that sorted out, you can just grab your webcam and use FaceRig to track your facial expressions and inject them into your virtual avatar.
Vtubers you should be watching
There are about 10,000 vtubers recorded since 2020, all with their own unique characteristics and identities.
Here are some of our favorites:
Arguably the hottest vtuber right now is the cute shark head called Gawr Gura, who claims she is “a descendant of the Lost City of Atlantis, who swam to Earth.” Gura captured the hearts of many people because of her simple and easygoing live streams, cuteness aside. She just started July last year, but Gura already has 2 million YouTube subscribers, a feat that took Kizuna Ai two years to achieve.
Her streams usually consist of let’s plays from a variety of titles like Mario Kart, Minecraft, and even Red Dead Redemption. Wanna see a vtuber exercise and lose weight? Check out Gawr Gura’s Ring Fit streams!
What makes CodeMiko stand out from the rest is her interactivity feature, which allows viewers to alter almost anything in her virtual space, from her physical appearance to the elements in her background. For a certain number of bits, you can mute/unmute her!
The technician behind CodeMiko used to work in the Research and Development field for live animation, and all the knowledge and experiences that she gained in the industry she decided to use later on to make her vision come true of mixing live action aspects with streaming.
“I would honestly place myself as more of a concept vtuber,” said Youna in an interview with content creator Devin Nash. “I feel like with a lot of the vtubers, they have a character and it’s just like they’re chatting. But what I’m trying to do is more like a show to prove my concept.”
OfflineTV streamer and Twitch darling Imane “Pokimane” Anys also joined the vtuber hype last year. She debuted her vtuber model last September, saying that “it’s such a cool thing to do” when she does not feel like being on cam.
She commissioned freelance vtuber artists Teru and Ann to make a 3D model in her likeness, complete with comfy yoga pants and long-sleeved tops.
There’s something really cute about Pokimane and her fresh experience with vtubing, something that long-time Poki fans and the vtuber fandom might find weirdly appealing.
The latest content creator to jump on the bandwagon? YouTube star PewDiePie.
In his comeback YouTube videos, PewDiePie has been using different avatars which are all a part of his reverse face reveal plan. The usual vtuber would have their face (and any of their real-life information) hidden from their viewers, but PewDiePie has this idea of doing the opposite since everyone is already familiar with him.
A male anime protagonist and a Minecraft character — these are just some of the avatars that Pewds have already used in this reverse face reveal. What other surprises does he have in store for us?
If you’re looking for a really fun and mischievous vtuber, Pekora’s streams are right up your alley.
Just like Gawr Gura, Pekora is under the Hololive talent umbrella. She is this indigo-haired bunny girl who has carrots stuck in-between her braids. Despite her odd choice of hairstyle, Pekora’s streams reels in hundreds of thousands of viewers especially whenever she holds singing and just chatting streams.
Pekora also plays video games like Minecraft, PUBG, and Among Us with her co-Hololive vtubers.
The future of vtubers
Since vtubing is still a relatively new concept especially for countries outside of Japan, vtubing still has a ton of growth potential. The next big thing might even be group vtubing, especially since these virtual YouTubers have started holding collaborative streams, like playing Among Us. It’s like OTV and friends!
From Japan to the rest of the world, right now is undoubtedly the best time to become a vtuber. This year, we fully expect more content creators to jump on the trend and create their own avatars, all with unique personalities to stand out in the digital market.
Vtubers might even become the next big marketing stunt, considering how Japanese brand Nissin has already hired Hololive’s idol group “Spice Love,” which consists of Oozora Subaru, Minato Aqua, and Usada Pekora, to promote their instant curry rice. Mazero, mazero!
Of course with vtubing already established, digital avatars will surely be on the rise and not just for streaming or marketing, but for other purposes as well. Remember how League of Legends’ champion Seraphine started out last year as a mysterious, rising indie musician? Riot Games magnificently built her story through her social media accounts and later on established that she will be having a collaboration with K/DA and will later on debut as League of Legends’ newest mage champion!
South Korean girl group aespa is also experimenting with digital members with the group featuring both human and virtual members.
One thing is for sure, Vtubing is here to stay and as technology gets more affordable and more advanced we see it becoming more and more mainstream. There could even come a day where everyone has a digital avatar and that just becomes your standard way of interacting with other people online.
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The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been around long enough now that it's easy to take for granted. But it's not the first time a shared universe of Marvel Comics characters showed up on screen. No, the FIRST MCU was in the '80s. Spinning out of the smash hit The Incredible Hulk, Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno took their small screen superhero act to the next level. This is the Inside Story of the original shared Marvel world, The Incredible MCU That Time Forgot. The mini-doc features the Hulk himself, Lou Ferrigno, along with Eric Allan Kramer who played Thor, the original Daredevil Rex Smith, Elizabeth Gracen whose spy Jasmin was for all intents and purposes Black Widow, and writer Gerald Di Pego, who scripted two of the three films. The cast and crew talk about the original series, coming back with The Return of the Incredible Hulk, and riding that success through The Trial of The Incredible Hulk before wrapping up the trilogy with The Death of The Incredible Hulk. While the modern Avengers have grown from
From Japanese anime characters to Barbie, virtual YouTubers talk and act just like people — and they could change the way we all interact forever.
A young Japanese woman sporting a giant pink bow and white opera gloves looks into the camera and gleefully greets her YouTube audience. She’s about to try and solve a puzzle.
Before diving into the game, she boasts with a smile: “Well, compared to all you humans, I can clear it much faster. No doubt about it!”
Yes, this YouTube personality isn’t a real person. While she’s voiced by a human, she’s a digital, anime-style cartoon. Her name is Kizuna Ai, and she has more than two million subscribers to her channel. She’s the most-watched “virtual YouTuber” on the site.
Kizuna Ai is a virtual YouTuber who uploads videos like human vloggers do. She's now a spokeswoman for the Japan National Tourism Organization (Credit: A.I.Channel)
Kizuna Ai is part of an emerging trend where 3D avatars – rather than humans – are becoming celebrities on YouTube, with dedicated fanbases and corporate deals. It’s becoming so popular that one company is investing tens of millions in “virtual talent” and talent agencies are being established to manage these avatars.
It’s a movement that has big implications for the future – it could change how brands market their products and how we interact with technology. It could even let us live forever.
They act and sound just like humans
Usually, vloggers are people who speak directly into the camera to their fans, sharing things like beauty tips, product reviews and pop culture rants. But in the past year they have had to contend with “VTubers” like Kizuna Ai.
“We saw this start to take off right at the end of 2017… and it’s continued to grow,” says Kevin Allocca, head of culture and trends at YouTube. He points to Kizuna Ai’s channel as an example of the spike in VTuber popularity: it had around 200,000 subscribers last December, but well over two million just 10 months later.
Google’s Earnest Pettie says the amount of daily views of VTuber videos this year is quadruple last year’s figure. And while there’s no easy way to measure exactly how many VTubers there are, User Local, a Tokyo-based web analytics site, counts at least 2,000.
Not all virtual YouTubers are based in Japan. Bilingual Ami Yamato "lives" in London and interacts in the non-virtual world (Credit: Ami Yamato)
These include Nekomiya Hinata, a peach-haired character who plays combat video games, sprinkling in niceties in Japanese while gunning down foes. Another, Ami Yamato, is a British virtual vlogger based in London who has a penchant for Starbucks and strolls around in the “real” world, occasionally alongside live humans. She's been vlogging since 2011.
This isn’t yet a global trend – Allocca says VTubers are popular mostly in Japan. But in that country, the futuristic videos have got the attention of companies, keen to help these characters find popularity beyond YouTube.
A new industry?
Gree, one of Japan’s biggest mobile app developers, plans to invest 10bn yen ($88m) over the next two years into developing virtual talent, creating more live-streaming opportunities, building filming and animation studios, and giving creators resources.
“We believe that human beings need avatars beyond nicknames and profile pictures,” says Gree spokesman Kensuke Sugiyama. “Although virtual talent is currently only 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.”
Virtual YouTubers often collaborate in the same video with humans or other virtual YouTubers (Credit: A.I.Channel)
Sugiyama says that as virtual and augmented reality technologies continue to develop, more vloggers and internet users could transform into fantastical and colourful characters – which in turn could become brands themselves.
It’s not just Gree, either. Kao, a Japanese cosmetics and chemicals company, “hired” VTuber Tsukino Mito at a live event in Tokyo to appear on a washing machine’s smart screen to sell laundry detergent. The Ibaraki prefectural government created a virtual influencer last month to appear in tourism campaigns, and Kizuna Ai herself was selected by the national tourism board to appear in videos to lure foreign visitors to Japan.
This demand is driving associated industries: a talent agency in Japan launched in April that caters exclusively to virtual avatars. It’ll help clients organise events, video collaborations with other creators and more.
How did we get here?
A star is ‘born’
An early adopter of this trend is a character that’s almost 60 years old.
Barbie, the doll that has appeared across toy lines and TV programmes for decades, made her own virtual vlogging debut back in 2015, before the rise of the Japanese VTubers.
“Hi – uh, OK, let’s see, where should I start?” Barbie says as she leans back into her seat after switching on a webcam.
“My name is Barbie Roberts, I have three sisters and we live in Los Angeles – well, Malibu, but I’m originally from Wisconsin. We moved here when I was eight years old.” She sounds and looks like many other teen vloggers on YouTube. She talks about everything from personal style, to more complex topics like why girls say “sorry” so much.
Mattel's iconic Barbie character has been connecting with fans as a virtual YouTuber since 2015, before many Japanese VTubers became famous (Credit: Barbie YouTube Channel)
California-based toy company Mattel, which owns the Barbie brand, noticed the rise in popularity of vlogging and saw an opportunity to reach kids who want to buy Barbie products.
“Barbie puts out two vlogs a month and it takes about four weeks for each new episode,” says Lisa McKnight, senior vice president and global general manager for Barbie. “A team develops each script based on topics that are relevant to a girl and authentic to Barbie the character – some vlogs tackle relevant and cultural conversations, and some vlogs play on a YouTube trend.”
Whether it’s Barbie or Kizuna Ai, many VTubers use similar technology to transform a human performer into a digital influencer.
How YouTubers transform
Here’s how it often works. First, an actor stands in a studio and her head, elbows and hands are outfitted with motion trackers. As the actor moves, her motions are recorded by software that recreates full body actions from just these handful of trackers. These actions are then mapped over the shape and proportions of an animated character, which can finally be rendered on a background or live-streamed.
Meanwhile, a professional voice actor or human vlogger supplies the character’s speech.
Virtual avatars like VTubers come alive by mixing voice actor performances and body movements tracked with motion-capture technology (Credit: IKinema)
The teams behind many VTubers don’t like to give away much more about how characters like Kizuna Ai come to life. In fact, sometimes the team themselves refer to their creations as though the characters are real people.
“All we can say is that we met each other through destiny two years ago,” says Masashi Nakano, co-founder of Tokyo-based Activ8, the digital production company that brings Kizuna Ai to life.
While some content creators keep their process secret, other companies producing similar content, like Gree, are more transparent. They’re working with IKinema, a UK-based animation company that provides software to clients in a number of fields to produce animated or virtual reality content. (For example, non-VTuber actors outside and inside Japan are increasingly using this kind of motion-capture technology as part of their performances in film and video games.)
Alexandre Pechev is CEO of IKinema. He says demand out of Japan for this kind of technology has dramatically increased over the past year, and that the company now works with dozens of Japanese content creators making virtual avatars.
He says this new brand of interactive, virtual characters is new and gives YouTube entrepreneurs an opportunity to create content that couldn’t exist on platforms like TV.
Japanese pop culture commands massive global interest, which is slowly increasing popularity in virtual YouTubers outside Japan (Credit: Getty Images)
How we’ll accept digital influencers
So what’s the appeal?
YouTube’s Allocca credits communities that build around them. We see these around VTubers, who often hold live chats with viewers, and fan communities on Reddit and Wikia.
“There's a unique quality to the content that virtual YouTubers offer… it isn't directly tethered to the problems of a real individual or identity,” says Reddit user David Kim, who’s a contributor to the Virtual YouTuber subreddit. “It's got the intrigue of character writing with the lackadaisical feel of live, organic, self-driven content.”
“I would say that the biggest contributor to the rise of virtual YouTube is the huge audience outside Japan who normally have interest for Japanese media and culture, such as anime,” says another fan, Kit Hakansson.
The trend within Japan of preferring digital over live-action personalities can be traced back four decades, says Izumi Tsuji, a sociology and culture professor at Chuo University. Tsuji points to a famous Japanese sociologist, Munesuke Mita, who posited that as a result of the slowed economic growth following the global oil crisis in the 1970s, many in the nation might have developed a listlessness with reality that could last to this day.
“From the latter half of the 1970s, we Japanese lost a certain goal or future of our society,” Tsuji says. “We tended to love the world of fiction. From this period, we tended to love enthusiastically anime, [video] games and idols instead of realistic movie and music stars.” One example of this, Tsuji says, is Hatsune Miku, the famous holographic pop star in Japan whose voice is digitally produced.
Akihabara, a neighbourhood in Tokyo, is the epicentre for Japan's anime and gaming culture that has spread all over the world and fueled VTuber popularity (Credit: Getty Images)
Pechev says people choose to accept virtual YouTubers at face value. When we meet real people “what we see is their personality”, he says, not the internal workings. “We accept them as real human beings. I think the same happens at the moment with virtual YouTubers.”
Nowadays, we’re seeing more comfort in interacting with digital avatars in place of people outside Japan too.
Cosplayers in Los Angeles at Anime Expo 2018. Companies funding VTubers hope the desire to cosplay mirrors a desire to create a virtual avatar of oneself (Credit: Getty Images)
Could they replace human YouTubers?
But why replace human vloggers in the first place?
After all, vlogging is one of the cheapest forms of making video – switch the camera on, talk, and upload. While there might be some editing involved, it doesn’t involve costly effects or set design. So why replicate a talking head with another – more expensive – version?
It’s because the virtual character can be used at scale in ways that human characters can’t: they can appear in video games and apps outside YouTube, and as VR and AR technology improves, they can even hold virtual reality concerts. (VTuber Kaguya Luna did just that earlier this year.)
American comedian duo Rhett & Link published a vlog that’s been viewed 2.5 million times, voicing concerns that virtual YouTubers could replace humans. After all, they never get tired. Their appearances can be changed on a whim. They never demand payment or more Patreon donations.
But never fear, humans – there are cheaper, lower-quality apps YouTubers can use on their smartphones to make virtual vloggers of themselves. FaceRig, a crowdfunded facial recognition app from Romania, is a cheap way for people to turn their facial expressions into digital cartoons and animals on their smartphone, similar to Apple’s Animoji.
This autumn, Gree is releasing a live-streaming application in which users can create a VTuber of themselves on their smartphone.
“Many people have the desire to ‘want to be characters’,” says Gree’s Sugiyama, pointing to the global popularity of cosplay at fan conventions. And VTubers’ success in Japan goes deeper than fandom, Sugiyama posits. “Japanese are not good at expressing themselves openly, and I think that there are many people who really want to send out [their message] to the world, but do not want to reveal their appearance.”
Pechev wonders just how far the digitisation of ourselves could go.
If this develops in the future, he says, we could train avatars to act like us without having to re-record our movements. “It doesn’t have to do 100% of what we do, or even 80%,” he says – a character could be programmed with our voice and just enough of our actions, so that it could interact with friends and family after we die. “It could interact with other virtual avatars, or real people. Can we live forever?”
Nakano of the Kizuna Ai team says something similar: “We would like to create a world just like Ready Player One,” he says, referring to the film and novel set in a massive virtual dimension.
Kizuna Ai performs for fans at her birthday party in Tokyo in June (Credit: A.I.Channel)
What’s next for Ai-chan, as her fans call her? Nakano mentions TV adverts, a global music festival that’s held online in VR and becoming a top idol in the virtual world.
And for now, you can keep up with your favourite VTuber throughout their day-to-day life or buy T-shirts from their merch shop.
But as Sugiyama says of the VTuber trend – that it “will allow all human beings to be released from physical constraints” – it could be a matter of time before you become one yourself.
Bryan Lufkin is BBC Capital’s features writer. Follow him on Twitter @bryan_lufkin.
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The Vtuber takeover of 2020
On Sept. 18, 2020, the friendliest war ever conducted between Canadians and Americans commenced. And while not the most expensive war in total, the exuberanceof its armaments left its primary target, a pink-haired digital goth girl, aghast.
Calliope Mori was, at that point, a newly minted streamer who was enjoying an indie survival game called Mad Father. As she played, her chat suddenly started spiraling out of control. An explosion of red banners overtook her chat, denoting that her viewers were leaving her, at minimum, tips of $100 or more.
Mori started panicking as the crimson notifications continued flooding her view. Each one came with a message from a fan, which she promised to read in full “even if it takes me six hours.” Over the course of half an hour, at least $10,000 flooded in, with the pace only increasing as viewers fought to one-up each other in their donations. The more Mori protested, the more people donated.
Calliope Mori is, of course, not her real name. And the anime-style avatar she dons while rapping and drinking wine on stream is not what she really looks like. But the audience is real, and their money was withdrawn from actual banking and credit accounts. Vtubers have splashed down on the Western internet, and in 2020, everybody’s feeling the waves.
Content creators using representational avatars is not, in itself, a particularly new phenomena, though the mutations in technology arguably are. The use of a virtual avatar was at one point prohibitively expensive, requiring industrial motion-capture setups, and professional teams of cinematographers and software engineers. But the same effect can now be achieved with a virtual reality setup and software suite that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars instead of hundreds of thousands. You can now theoretically make a virtual avatar like Calliope Mori’s with something as simple as a smartphone app and laptop. By and large, developments in streaming and content creation software have brought the technology into the hands of individual content creators and smaller agencies.
The first known instance of this phenomenon is largely credited to U.K. vlogger Ami Yamato, who launched her YouTube channel in late 2011. But what’s now commonly considered a “Vtuber” has less in common with her Pixar-like 3D avatar, and more with the fully anime style Kizuna Ai, a virtual idol made by a Japanese production company that now boasts over 4 million YouTube subscribers.
Since 2016, Kizuna Ai set many of the expectations and practices now expected of Vtubers, both deliberate and accidental. Deliberately: an anime-style avatar with a fictional backstory. In Kizuna’s case, she claims to be an artificial intelligence come to life. For much of her career, Kizuna kept her support staff and real-world actress a mystery, which helps sell the fantasy to the viewers who develop parasocial relationships with her. This practice is now routinely emulated by her peers and successors in the space.
Another principle also commonly practiced by Vtubers is more of an accident on Kizunai Ai’s part — and deeply tied to the politics of content creation and IP ownership. Her production company, Activ8, has attempted to broaden Kizuna Ai’s appeal in 2019 by bringing in more voice actresses (and tripling up on avatars) who “played” her — the closest parallel would be watching different actors take on the same theater role. These attempts to “clone” Kizuna AI were controversial, especially as rumors spread that the original voice actress was let go in the process. In the wake of the incident, not only was voice actress Nozomi Kasuga unmasked as the voice behind the project, the people involved in the first act launched a whole new company, with original character designer Eriko Matsumoto as its new CEO.
Kizuna’s peers have since followed suit. Fellow Japanese Vtuber-specialized agencies Hololive and Nijisanji, representing dozens to over a hundred Vtuber content creators respectively, have opted to retire and “graduate” characters when their voice actors leave the company instead of replacing them wholesale. In practice, they’ve yielded the question of who “owns” the character to the fans. And fans have deep enough attachments to specific actors that it’s impossible to further monetize a character when the original human behind it leaves.
In exchange for giving up unilateral control of the IP, however, they’ve gained unprecedented fan loyalty. Per Playboard’s estimates, eight of the top 10 YouTube tips earners since January 2020 are Vtubers — and five of them are under the Hololive umbrella. Two Hololive Vtubers have broken the million-dollar mark off tips alone: green-haired necromancer Uruha Rushia, and English-speaking dragon-girl Kiryu Coco.
Donations alone don’t make them millionaires, of course. YouTube takes a steep cut of the proceeds, commonly cited as 30% of Superchat and membership subscriptions, as does Hololive, though their cut isn’t publicly specified. But Hololive’s representation also includes sponsorship deals, merchandise lines, and everything else associated with the Japanese idol industry. The true scope behind the happy-go-lucky anime personalities we see is vast, and only growing larger as the English-speaking community catches up. Fans have taken to translating short 2-3 minute videos of their favorite Vtubers, which can often go viral on social media if not form the lifeblood of dedicated Vtubing accounts.
As demand increases, companies have risen to meet the needs of western audiences.
On Sept. 11, Hololive officially announced and launched its first all-English branch of streamers and content creators. The five-woman cast of Hololive Myth, represented by a phoenix, a grim reaper, a tentacled priestess to eldritch gods, an Atlantean shark-girl, and a time-traveling detective, immediately gained in excess of 150,000+ subscribers each. As of late October, shark-girl Gawr Gura made Hololive history as the first member of the agency to break the million-subscriber mark on YouTube, and two of her Japanese colleagues have since followed in her wake.
Hololive’s Western debut opened up the floodgates, showering its five newest stars with viewers and donations alike. But, arguably, their entrance into the market was conservatively timed, coming only after others did the work in proving a high degree of latent interest in the first place. And those who came before Hololive worked off a different playbook.
Projekt Melody got her start in 2019 on Chaturbate as the first of her kind, as noted by Vice back in February. That is, she was the first virtual adult performer, known for titillating her audience as a bonafide “cam girl.” Beyond wearing translucent club wear, Melody will sometimes allow her audience to control a Wi-Fi-enabled vibrator, at least when she’s on platforms that will allow it. That same month, Justin “Gunrun” Ignacio, formerly of Twitch.tv and now with Japanese digital analytics company Giken, was enlisted to help bring her to a wider audience — but without the toys.
Ignacio’s work eventually expanded to include Melody’s circle of friends and fellow Western Vtubers. Under his wing, these acts were able to rapidly develop big audiences. As it turned out, what makes Vtubers appealing to a Japanese fan base was also golden in the West, too.
This is largely reflected in Google’s trends history as well, with a notable uptick in Vtuber searches in February that escalated quickly from June onward. The sharpest spike, of course, is from September — which coincided with Hololive Myth’s launch.
Indeed, Hololive’s rapidly rising tide seems to have lifted all boats. Melody’s own (more safe-for-work) YouTube channel has in excess of 400,000 subscribers now, putting her ahead of other more conventional creators in the space.
In fact, Melody’s success had the attention of her Eastern peers too — in particular that of Hololive’s foul-mouthed, English-fluent yakuza gangster dragon Kiryu Coco.
“Coco and I actually have the most in common,” Melody said in an interview with Polygon. With an immense tongue-in-cheek glibness, she added, “For example, we’re [both] enthusiastic about the art of nakadashi, a unique form of Japanese painting.” Here, she was referring to the Japanese pornographic synonym for “creampie.” The two have gone on to collaborate together in dual livestreams, which she called a “huge compliment.”
But then things changed. In our conversation, Melody said she stumbled across a video clip where Kiryu suddenly claimed she wasn’t “allowed” to discuss her friend anymore.
Though Hololive’s stable of creators are nominally Japanese-style idols, with the singing, dancing, and coquettishly chaste conduct normally expected of one, their actual reputation as entertainers does not always match. Coco’s own repertoire of on-stream antics includes everything from Shakira-inspired twerking to sharing her body hair-removal sessions with her audience, complete with MS Paint scribbles to illustrate specific body parts.
Between all of that and Coco’s immediate colleagues’ discussion of favorite hentai artists and other bawdy anecdotes, Melody seemed a natural collaboration. Yet, for a company where dirty jokes, screeching tantrums, and frank discussions of fetishes are as fundamental to their reputation as the more traditionally idol-like song-and-dance routines, collaborating with an actual porn actress apparently became a step too far.
In a rare instance of Hololive management actually saying no to an idea publicly, their collab was quashed.
“It made me sad,” Melody reflected. “But I understand.”
It wasn’t Melody’s first conflict with the taboo nature of virtual sex work. The stigma made finding artists and coders willing to work with her difficult at times. In fact, the coder who is responsible for her 3D model has opted to stay anonymous because of her reputation. An agency like Hololive, meanwhile, can only achieve mainstream partnerships with big brands, like Nissin Corporation-owned Curry Meshi, because they stay within marketable margins.
Yet these restrictions are mostly a matter of platform, not performance. As Melody notes, YouTube isn’t her “native” platform, and having the occasional video demonetized isn’t as discouraging for her as it would be for a Hololive performer — who nonetheless still regularly wrestle with YouTube’s content-sensitivity algorithms.
Much of Hololive’s more chronic woes revolve around having Vtuber models that show cleavage or are costumed in revealing swimsuits, triggering YouTube’s content-sensitivity filters. Their creators’ ASMR-related content seems especially prone to automated takedowns for what appear to be similar reasons. But their biggest issue this year was a basic matter of copyright and IP permissions, causing a mass archiving of their members’ videos as they renegotiated right-to-stream contracts with game publishers.
But despite these hurdles, Melody’s peers in the Western space say that having a digital avatar actually gives them more freedom overall, not less.
Veteran YouTuber Nyanners has been, for a lack of a better descriptor, shitposting for nigh on a decade now, but has only recently moved to using a virtual avatar herself. And in doing so, she has found both more confidence in her role as a creator and a much bigger audience.
“Using an avatar in this way creates a clear-cut separation between my life as a content creator and my personal life as a human behind the avatar,” said Nyanners. “Although it’s less of a mask and more of an extension of myself, and it weirdly feels kind of freeing. I can open up about things and express myself in ways that would otherwise feel uncomfortable.”
It also widened the gates, so to speak, as noted by fellow Vtuber Silvervale. “Many people are interested in streaming and take inspiration from the streamers they watch,” Silvervale says, “but are uncomfortable using a webcam for a variety of reasons.”
And even veteran streamers like Pokimane and Lilypichu have recently shown off virtual representatives as well. Silvervale says, “these IRL streamers embracing a new way to create content and feel more comfortable can really inspire those who felt they couldn’t chase their dream of streaming before.”
Of course, having high-profile creators move toward Vtubing inevitably means toes are trodden on, especially for those wary of “outsiders” to the community. From a content creator’s perspective, the weight of their real-world presence at least means that some of the benefits commonly associated with Vtubers are lost in the transition.
“Some people I know have had issues where safety has been a concern,” said Melody. “Stalking, harassment, and even doxxing is not uncommon for content creators. I’ve heard many Vtubers express how relieved they are that they can express themselves as freely as they like, and don’t have to worry about these [real-life] dangers to the same extent.”
But a mask of any kind only affords so much protection. Vtubers, particularly famous ones, still get personally identified and are still the subject of gossip and scrutiny. And for particularly famous ones, harassment campaigns can take on an international scope — most notably and recently from the Chinese audience, where the mention of Taiwan in a discussion about viewership stats can trigger a massively disproportionate communal response in the form of an ongoing harassment campaign, leading to the eventual disbanding of Hololive’s Chinese branch.
But the Vtuber community as a whole, especially outside the context of geopolitics, is notably resistant to encroachment on their performers’ personal identities. That is, when it comes to information beyond which the creators have volunteered. Keeping the kayfabe up can definitively be said to be a communal value for their audience, as much as it would be with the wrestling community. And even for streamers with known identities, the allure of the mystery beckons.
“Safety aside, having a virtual avatar is helpful,” said Melody. “You might want to be an online entertainer, like a streamer, which is great. But you also might worry about your appearance, since getting made-up every day can be a chore. Having the ability to slip into a virtual avatar is very convenient.
“Also, it’s not usually a discussed topic, but a virtual persona is helpful when you have physical limitations, because it takes stress off the body.”
YouTubers that use digital avatars
A virtual YouTuber (Japanese: バーチャルユーチューバー, Hepburn: bācharu yūchūbā) or VTuber (ブイチューバー, buichūbā) is an online entertainer who uses a virtual avatar generated using computer graphics and motion capture software or technology. A digital trend that originated in Japan in the mid-2010s, a majority of VTubers are Japanese-speaking YouTubers or live streamers who use anime-inspired avatar designs. By 2020, there were more than 10,000 active VTubers. Despite their name, virtual YouTubers are not exclusive to Youtube but are also on platforms like Niconico, Twitch and bilibili.
The first entertainer to use the phrase "virtual YouTuber", Kizuna AI, began creating content on YouTube in late 2016. Her popularity sparked a VTuber trend in Japan, and spurred the establishment of specialized agencies to promote them, including Hololive Production and Nijisanji [ja]. Fan translations and foreign-language VTubers have marked a rise in the trend's international popularity. Virtual YouTubers have appeared in domestic advertising campaigns in Japan, and have broken live-stream-related world records.
Virtual YouTubers, or VTubers, are online entertainers, who are typically Japanese-speaking YouTubers or live streamers. They use avatars created with programs such as Live2D, portraying characters designed by online artists. VTubers are considered to have great appeal in that they are not bound by physical limitations and many of them engage in activities that are unconstrained by real-world sex and gender. VTubers are associated with Japanese popular culture and aesthetics, such as anime and manga, and moe anthropomorphism with human or non-human traits. Some VTubers are anthropomorphic, non-human characters such as animals.
VTubers often portray themselves as a kayfabe character, not unlike professional wrestling; Mace, a WWE wrestler who himself began streaming on Twitch as a VTuber in 2021, remarked that the two professions were "literally the same thing".
According to the BBC, they are unique in that their content "isn't directly tethered to the problems of a real individual or identity," and the popularity of VTubers worldwide is due to their "large customer base outside of Japan who love Japanese culture and anime".
See also: Video game live streaming § Equipment
A VTuber's avatar is typically animated using a webcam and software, which captures the streamer's motions, expressions, and mouth movements, and maps them to a two- or three-dimensional model. Both free and paid programs have been developed, with some capable of being used without a webcam (albeit with pre-determined animations), and some also supporting virtual reality hardware, or hand tracking devices such as the Leap Motion Controller. The animation software Live2D is typically used to rig two-dimensional models, while programs such as VRoid Studio have sometimes been used to create three-dimensional models. Commissioned models can cost upwards of US$2,000 depending on their level of detail.
On 12 February 2010, visual novel maker Nitroplus began uploading videos to its YouTube channel featuring an animated 3D version of its mascot Super Sonico, who would usually talk to the audience about herself or about releases related to the company. On 13 June 2011, UK-based Japanese vloggerAmi Yamato uploaded her first video, which featured an animated, virtual avatar speaking to the camera. In 2012, Japanese company Weathernews Inc. debuted a vocaloid-like character called Weatheroid Type A Airi on SOLiVE24, a 24-hour weather live stream on Nico Nico Douga, on YouTube and their website. In 2014, Airi got her own solo program every Thursday and began live broadcasting with motion capture.
In 2014 the FaceRig indie software launched on Indiegogo as a EU crowdfunding project, and later that year it was released on Steam becoming the first software suite that enabled live avatars at home via face motion capture that started being actively used on steaming website and YouTube. The Live2D software module enabling 2D avatars and was added one year later in 2015 in collaboration with Live2D, Inc. from Japan.
In late 2016, Kizuna AI, the first VTuber to achieve breakout popularity, made her debut on YouTube. She was the first to coin and use the term "virtual YouTuber". Created by digital production company Activ8 and voice-acted by Nozomi Kasuga, Kizuna AI created a sense of "real intimacy" with fans, as she was responsive to their questions. Within ten months, she had over two million subscribers and later became a culture ambassador of the Japan National Tourism Organization. Kizuna Ai's popularity can be attributed to the oversaturation of traditional webcam YouTubers and for aspects of characters that the audience would not expect. For example, despite having a friendly appearance, Kizuna Ai often swears in her videos when she gets frustrated while playing a game.
The VTuber trend
Kizuna AI's sudden popularity sparked a VTuber trend. Between May and mid-July 2018, the number of active VTubers increased from 2,000 to 4,000.Kaguya Luna [ja] and Mirai Akari [ja] followed Kizuna as the second and third most popular VTubers, with 750,000 and 625,000 subscribers respectively. Nekomiya Hinata [ja] and Siro [ja], two other early VTubers, each gained followings of 500,000 in six months.
In the beginning of 2018, Anycolor Inc. (then known as Ichikara) founded the VTuber agency Nijisanji [ja]. Nijisanji helped popularise the use of Live2D models instead of the prior focus on 3D models as well as the shift towards livestreaming instead of edited video and clips that was the standard for VTubers like Kizuna Ai.
After their initial success in Japan, VTubers spread overseas, with agencies like Hololive and Nijisanji creating branches in China, South Korea, Indonesia, and India, as well as general English-language branches targeting a global audience. Meanwhile, independent VTubers began to appear in many countries, from Japan to the United States. In July 2018, VTubers had a collective subscriber count of 12.7 million, and more than 720 million total views. By January 2020, there were over 10,000 VTubers.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to an overall increase in viewership of video game live streaming in general in 2020, which helped contribute to the growth of VTubers into a mainstream phenomenon. In August 2020, seven of the ten largest Super Chat earners of all time on YouTube were VTubers, including Hololive member Kiryu Coco [ja] at number one, who by that time had earned approximately ¥85 million (approximately US$820,000 in 2020). At the same time, the popularity of VTubers continued to rise on Twitch, a host of several notable English-speaking VTubers such as VShojo members Projekt Melody and Ironmouse.
In September 2020, Anycolor, the management company for Nijisanji, one of the major VTuber agencies in Japan, created an "Aggressive Acts and Slander Countermeasure Team" to offer counselling to victims of harassment and take legal measures against perpetrators of harassment, specifically the online harassment plaguing the Japanese entertainment industry. This announcement came in the wake of Hololive VTuber Mano Aloe's retirement after only two weeks of activity due to online harassment.
YouTube's 2020 Culture and Trends report highlights VTubers as one of the notable trends of that year, with 1.5 billion views per month by October.
On March 30, 2021, Kizuna AI was chosen as one of Asia's top 60 influencers.
In May 2021, Twitch added a VTuber tag for streams as part of a wider expansion of its tag system. In July 2021, Gawr Gura—a member of Hololive's first English branch—overtook Kizuna Ai as the most-subscribed VTuber on YouTube.
Use in marketing
Due to their popularity, companies and organisations have used virtual YouTubers as a method of advertising or bringing attention to a product or service. When SoftBank announced the release of the iPhone XS and XS Max in 2018, Kizuna AI appeared at the event and promoted the products on her channel.
In August 2018, Wright Flyer Live Entertainment released a mobile application allowing VTubers to live stream videos while monetizing them and connecting with their viewers. In a news conference in Tokyo, the head of Wright Flyer Live Entertainment stated, "just increasing the number [of VTubers] is not that effective. We want them to keep on doing their activities. [To do that], gaining fans and monetization are essential. So, we are providing a platform to support that". This followed Wright Flyer Live Entertainment's parent company Gree, Inc.'s ¥10 billion ($89.35 million) investment in VTubers, as well as a ¥10 billion sales target by 2020.
On June 24, 2019, VTuber Kaguya Luna, in collaboration with Nissin Foods to advertise its Yakisoba UFO noodles, held a live stream with a smartphone attached to a helium balloon. By the end of the stream, the smartphone reached an altitude of 30 kilometres (19 mi) above sea level and was noted by Guinness World Records as being the live stream recorded at the highest altitude, breaking the previous record of 18.42 kilometres (11.45 mi).
Some organizations and companies have employed their own VTuber characters as mascots within marketing. These include the government of Japan's Ibaraki Prefecture (which developed the character of Ibaraki Hiyori), Crunchyroll-Hime, the mascot of anime video streaming service Crunchyroll, the video streaming service Netflix (which developed the character N-ko promote its anime lineup), and Sega (who planned to have in-character streams with Sonic the Hedgehog and his Japanese voice actor Jun'ichi Kanemaru).
In 2021, Hololive English member Gawr Gura made a cameo appearance on a billboard in an anime-themed ad by American fast food chain Taco Bell (which premiered to coincide with the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo).
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On that day, she came from vacation and since it was Friday, as I remember now, I, with the support of our old and very good friends, a. Married couple, in which the man was 38 years old, and the woman was 36. Over the 15 years of our friendship (the same age as our family life), we have become very close with friends, both spiritually and in many ordinary everyday affairs, some kind of joint activities, problem solving, mutual assistance, relaxation, a bathhouse, gatherings with a glass, etc.
so naturally over the years, more than once during feasts and trips to the bathhouse, there were moments of flirting and playful caresses of other people's husbands wives and conversations "about this", but everything always reached a certain point for which no one dared to intercede. My wife and I were very excited, during sex after such gatherings to fantasize, but what if someone would take a step to cross the line.
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All wet and shaking, what to do. Tanya is just lovely, just as smart and quick-witted as my former friend Sveta, but the truth is. Not so beautiful, who left to enter the Polytechnic University, and immediately realized. In four hands, we quickly stripped Ira bald, nothing, Tanya said, it's completely dark here.
Then my friend, taking out a small bottle of alcohol from her purse, rubbed this "bather" with my help.