Can 3D Characters Become Next K-Pop Idols?

Since its introduction in the 1960s, computer animation has been widely used in films and television shows. Characters built with this technology, once considered as an experiment, is now even taking over the entertainment industry in Asia.

In 2007, for example, a Japanese virtual idol named Hatsune Miku took the internet by storm. This 16-year-old virtual idol, available as text-to-voice software, has collaborated with thousands of artists and made several hits on YouTube since her debut. Miku performs her greatest hits on a real stage as a three-dimensional hologram now and then. Last year, the tickets for this digital diva’s concert in London were sold out.

There are also national auditions for virtual idol trainees, similar to the Voice or the X-Factor. In Dimension Nova, a Chinese audition show broadcast through IQIYI, three human judges evaluated the talents of virtual characters. After careful consideration, the judges chose the three best trainees who can become China’s favourite digital, virtual idol band.

Some may say that these virtual characters are still far from being mainstream idols, but ZEPETO says otherwise. ZEPETO, powered by NAVER Z, a subsidiary of NAVER Corp., developed virtual characters of a highest-charting female act on Billboard Hot 100 and created their music video, which recorded more than 91 million views on YouTube.

Images Courtesy of ZEPETO

The ZEPETO team says this is only the beginning of virtual idols expanding in the entertainment business, especially with the situations around COVID-19. Read the full interview with 4i-mag below.

Q. What is ZEPETO?

“ZEPETO is a virtual avatar platform that was launched in 2018. It’s quite new but growing quickly. Our team is quite excited about the growth.

Once you sign up for the app, it renders your selfies and creates a personalised avatar. You can edit and customise the look, clothes, and items of the avatar as you like. After setting up, you can enter the ZEPETO World, where you can meet and interact with other users. Users can host parties or events in the ZEPETO world, and you can be part of that, too.

Travelling around the world is made easy with ZEPETO, too. Users can visit [the virtual areas of] Shanghai, Paris, or any other places they couldn’t go in the real world.”

Q. What technological tools does ZEPETO utilise to create such virtual characters?

“To make the characters, we use tools such as 3D computer animation and motion captures of a real human. Mostly, we used to capture certain moves that went viral on social media.”

Note: Image recognition is the ability of software to understand and identify people, objects, and places. As one of the computer vision tools, it processes pixels that make an image and often bring out an automated outcome programmed by its developers. For example, some software based on image recognition technology recognises handwritings or tests printed on paper and translates it into text files on computers or phones.

Motion capture, which has been also introduced in one of 4i-mag’s articles, is a process of digitally recording the movement of people or objects. This tool is often used in making animations of three-dimensional characters, when the producers want to see more realistic, humanlike movements from them.

Both of these technological tools can bring out more accurate outcomes with the assistance of artificial intelligence and its deep learning. The more sources the AI refers to, the more precise the automated process becomes. That’s what many app developers, including ZEPETO, builds their products on AI, too.

Q. What can users expect from this platform?

“One of the main functions of ZEPETO is creating customisable contents and socialising with others by playing games with their own avatars.”

Q. How are people reacting to ZEPETO?

“Users, especially generation Z, love our platform. Also, we have many newly registered users or partnered brands who are seeking alternatives [to physical interactions] due to COVID-19. Luxury brands like Christian Louboutin was one of them. They wanted to showcase their products to the consumers and fans without launching a fashion show in the real world.”

Images Courtesy of ZEPETO

Q. How big is the platform at the moment?

“As of numbers, the platform has over 190 million registered users up to date. We also have more than a billion photos or videos created on the platform. Also, 1.8 million virtual items are sold every day. We have many users newly joining our app from all parts of the world.”

Q. What brands or artists have you collaborated with?

“ZEPETO has been working with many intellectual properties, for example, Disney, Nike, and other various K-pop act. For example, representatively, Blackpink, SF9, Cherry Bullet, and TXT. We also recently jumped into the luxury goods market, by partnering with Christian Louboutin. 

What we expect to reach by partnering with these brands is creating a very unique platform for the users, which is connecting the brands with their fans. These partnered brands can make their places or worlds in the World. Fans can try or interact with the items provided at these places. 

For example, Christian Louboutin launched a virtual Paris Boutique with all the [digitally recreated] collections of products that they sell in ZEPETO. The opening party, which was also held in ZEPETO, was attended by DJs and social media influencers. Users could take pictures with those influencers, or Mr. Louboutin, in front of the [virtual] Eiffel Tower.”

Images Courtesy of ZEPETO

Q. How did the collaboration with Blackpink happen?

“Our collaboration with Blackpink for their song ‘Ice Cream’ happened this year. We created the ZEPETO version of the performance and uploaded it on YouTube. Within a month, the video gained more than 70 million views. It’s pretty amazing that ZEPETO could do this project with Blackpink.

Also, the spread of the virus impacted the entertainment industry the most [in South Korea]. The artists could not come together to perform on the same stage. Making virtual characters of those artists provides an opportunity for the fans to see their favourite idols performing in the digital world.

We think that the video could go viral because people stay spend more time at their homes than before. The focus of our culture is now bridging the real world to the digital world. That’s how ZEPETO could keep the momentum going.”

Q. How did ZEPETO recreate Blackpink’s looks and movements?

“The designs of the characters, of course, were based on the artists’ looks. We used facial recognition and [our staff] manually retouched to recreate their looks.

To make the choreography to seem more natural and realistic, the ZEPETO team worked closely with YG Entertainment to receive in-depth visual data about the group’s choreography.”

Note: YG Entertainment is a record label and a talent agency that works with Blackpink.

Images Courtesy of ZEPETO

Q. Would there be an era of virtual idols becoming more popular than human idols?

“We are seeing more people becoming interested in virtual reality, a shift that has been expedited due to the pandemic. Things that we thought were impossible before are happening, so the future is very open.”

Q. What is ZEPETO’s plan for the next year?

“At the beginning of the year, ZEPETO is planning to do a New Year countdown ceremony in our virtual world. People also would be able to do some holiday gatherings if they cannot see their loved ones due to the virus spread. Please come and join us!”

Sunny Um is a Seoul-based journalist working with 4i Magazine. She writes and talks about policies, business updates, and social issues around the Korean tech industry. She is best known for in-depth explanations of local issues for readers who need a better understanding of the Korean context. Sunny’s works appeared in prominent Korean news outlets, such as the Korea Times and Wired Korea. She currently makes regular writing contributions to newsrooms worldwide, such as Maritime Fairtrade, a non-profit media organization based in Singapore. She also works as a content strategist at 1021 Creative. A person who holds a Master’s degree in Political Economy from King’s College London, she loves to follow up on news of Korean politics and economy when she’s not writing.