K-pop girl group ‘Eternity’ garnered millions of views online after releasing their debut single ‘I’m Real’ in 2021.
Like other groups, they sing, dance, and communicate with their fans, but there is one big difference from other idol groups. The point is that all 11 members are fictional characters.
It is a surreal avatar made with artificial intelligence (AI) technology, not a human being.
Park Ji-Eun, CEO of Pulse Nine, who produced ‘Eternity,’ said, “We are creating a new business with Eternity. I think it is a new genre.”
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In addition, he explained, “K-pop stars often suffer from physical limitations and even mental pain as human beings. On the other hand, virtual artists have the advantage of being free from these areas.”
K-pop has created a powerful cultural wave that has generated billions over the past decade. It has become a global mainstream culture with catchy melodies, a cutting-edge production environment, and catchy choreography. It is now regarded as Korea’s most profitable and influential export product.
But top K-pop stars, loyal fandoms, and entrepreneurs who want to capitalize on their success look further into the future.
The explosive growth of artificial intelligence (AI), deepfake, and avatar technology is taking idols to a new level of popularity.
The virtual faces of Eternity members were created by Deep Learning company Pulse Nine. Pulse Nine created 101 looks based on imagination and divided them into categories according to cuteness, sexiness, innocence, and intelligent charm.
Afterward, fans were asked to vote for their favorite face. Then, pulse Nine’s in-house designer turned the winning face into an animated character based on fan preference.
During real-time conversations, video shoots, and online fan meetings, the avatar’s face is composited with an anonymous singer, actor, or dancer contracted by Pulse Nine.
It is to make the character come alive by applying technology like a deepfake filter.
“Fictional characters can be perfect, and they can be more human than humans,” CEO Park Ji-Eun told the BBC’s 100 Women of the Year team.
As deep fake technology became widely known, concerns arose that it could be abused to manipulate other people’s photos without permission or create dangerous false information.
Women reported that their faces were composited into pornographic videos, and deepfake data of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spread on social media.
“We always try to make it clear that these idols are fictitious,” said CEO Park Ji-Eun.
In addition, Pulse Nine explained that it follows the European Union’s ethical AI guidelines when creating avatars.
CEO Park Ji-Eun says there is another advantage to virtual idol groups: creators can control each avatar.
“Scandals about real human K-pop stars can garner attention, but they also bring business risks,” he explained, explaining that positively using these new technologies can help K-pop suffer from undue stress and pressure trying to meet industry demands. As a result, he said that the singer’s problems could be minimized.
Over the past few years, K-pop has made headlines for various social issues, from love scandals to hurtful comments and body shape accusations to idols’ extreme diets.
The tragic deaths of young K-pop stars have also ignited discussions about mental health and cyberbullying in South Korea. Unfortunately, many people think that the fans were significantly affected by this.
In 2019, singer and actress Sulli were found dead in her home. It is known that Sulli took a break from the entertainment industry “because of the malicious false rumors surrounding her, both physically and mentally.”
Another K-pop idol close to Sulli, Goo Hara, was also found dead in her home in Seoul shortly after. Before taking her own life, Goo Hara was threatened by her boyfriend with an illegally filmed video. After fighting for justice, she was brutally attacked online.
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For human stars who train, perform, and interact with fans 24/7, the help of virtual world avatars can give them a moment to breathe.
Han Ye-won (19) was the lead vocalist in the new girl group Mimi Rose under YES IM Entertainment.
I went through a trainee period of nearly four years. She was one of many aspiring idols who had to be evaluated every month, waiting for a chance to see the light of day. Then, finally, trainees who needed more growth in the evaluation had to leave.
Han Ye-won says, “I was worried I wouldn’t be able to debut.”
K-pop stars are not created overnight. New groups debut every year, so getting noticed may take work.
Han Ye-won said, “I came out around 10 in the morning and relaxed for an hour. After that, I practiced singing for 2-3 hours, dancing for 3-4 hours, and exercising for 2 hours.”
“I practiced for over 12 hours in total. I’ll have to stay longer if my skills aren’t good enough.”
I know fans appreciate authenticity, but they also express concern about the virtual avatars flooding the industry.
“I’m afraid virtual characters will replace human idols as technology has recently improved.”
However, the business is expected to grow steadily, as some K-pop groups have quickly introduced new avatar technology.
According to the forecast of market research firm Immersion Research, the global market for virtual humans and avatars is estimated to reach $527.58 billion (about 692 trillion won) by 2030.
At least four of K-pop’s most prominent agencies invest heavily in idol-related virtual technology. In addition, five of the highest-grossing K-pop idol groups in 2022 have joined the trend.
Using virtual avatars, you can communicate with fans across time zones and language barriers in a way that is impossible for real idols.
For example, the girl group Espa consists of four human members (Karina, Winter, Giselle, Ningning) and virtual world avatar members (ae-Karina, ae-Winter, ae-Giselle, ae-Ningning). Avatar members can communicate with fans in the virtual world and cross platforms.
With the help of a virtual avatar, the girl group BLACKPINK, which topped the charts, made new history by winning the ‘Best Metaverse Performance Award’ newly established by the MTV Awards in 2022.
Over 15 million people worldwide watched Blackpink Avatar’s real-time in-game concert on the popular online game PUBGM.
Moon Soo-ah, a member of the K-pop group Billy, had to cancel concerts and fan meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, her agency created avatars of her members for virtual fan meetings.
Moon Soo-ah said, “It was my first time doing it, so I was clumsy.”
“But as I got more and more accustomed to the virtual world and talked to the fans, I got used to it. I had a really good time.”
Moon Soo-ah admired Billy’s avatar because it was so vivid, but says it’s better to meet the fans in person.
“I don’t feel like a threat. Could we improve our skills while watching our avatars? They’re not a threat that can replace us.
However, some concerns are expressed in the industry about the ethics and copyright issues that avatar technology can cause.
Billboard’s K-pop columnist Jeff Benjamin said in an interview with the BBC’s Women of the Year 100 team, “There are many unknowns about artists, virtual avatars, and idols in the metaverse world.” So it could create a situation where it is misused,” he explained.
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Lee Ji-soo (19), a student at an engineering college, relieves stress by being a K-pop fan. He has been a massive fan of the girl group Billy since their debut in 2019.
Lee Ji-soo says, “The love for the fans is amazing. We can’t help but love them even more.”
Jisoo collects fan albums and goods and communicates with Billy online and in the virtual world.
He added, “I feel emotions through Billy that I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t like Billy,” adding, “I want to return those feelings to Billy, so I work harder as a fan. I think it has a positive influence on me.”
Billy held a fan meeting in the virtual world
PHOTO SOURCE, SK TELECOM
Billy held a fan meeting in the virtual world
However, the virtual world can be uncomfortable for both K-pop stars and fans. Regulations to prevent cyberbullying and violence are either non-existent or rarely enforced. As a result, the K-pop industry has suffered from online attacks and rumors about famous stars.
Lee Ji-soo said, “I get more stressed when I see malicious comments about Billy online. I feel stressed and upset because they are insulting someone I like.”
Kim Jeong-yu, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, based in Seoul, says it is premature to determine how the rise of virtual technology and AI characters will affect the younger generation.
“The real problem is that we don’t see each other for who we are,” he explained. “In the virtual world, we have more freedom and can do things that we can’t do outside. As a result, we can be different people.”
He added, “The K-pop industry responds sensitively to what the public wants. People will want their favorite idols to live up to it.”
Jeff Benjamin says, “Like any other entertainment industry, there is a lot of pressure. So I expect idols always to show a good image, and I expect them to become shining idols for their fans.”
However, he explained that this situation is also changing. The industry is changing to improve stars’ mental health and hectic schedules.
“Artists are also open about their mental health conditions, and they are building a deeper connection with their fans.”
In the rapidly changing K-pop industry, it is still too early to determine whether virtual idols will be a fad or the future of the music industry.
But for now, it’s a straightforward choice for a fan like Lee Ji-soo.
“If someone asked me, ‘Will I watch 100 minutes of Billy in the metaverse or 10 minutes in real life, I would say I would watch 10 minutes in real life.'”
Also, I think that “people who like human idols and people who like virtual idols are completely different.” Therefore, it would be “difficult” for many such fans to give up being human K-pop stars and fall for avatars.