Kizuna AI, Kaguya Luna, and Cyber Girl Shiro are some of the biggest Japanese YouTube stars, with hundreds of thousands of subscribers each. The other thing they have in common? They are all virtual YouTube stars. Virtual YouTubers use computer software to generate characters that communicate online with their many followers and fans, and they are changing the way we think about YouTube content creation and consumption.
What Is A Virtual YouTuber?
A virtual YouTuber, as defined by Wikipedia, is an online entertainer who is represented by a digital avatar. Nicknamed “VTubers”, these characters are designed by artists and voiced and controlled by a real human on the other side of the screen. Though this phenomenon did not really start to take off until 2016, the first known use of a CG character on YouTube was by vlogger Ami Yamato in 2011, who created an avatar in her own likeness to communicate with followers online.
VTubers chat with fans, livestream, vlog, sing, dance, play video games, and test out new games and products. They behave exactly as many human YouTube stars do. This is probably due to the fact that the person voicing the VTuber is also using 3D software and motion capture technology to emulate the emotions, movements, and expressions that a real person might have.
Though VTubers may look and act like real people, they may not resemble the person operating them behind the scenes.
VTuber Yekomasu, for example, looks like a young woman, but has the voice of a middle-aged man. Other VTubers, like Kizuna AI, may look like a classic anime character and have a cartoon voice to match, but tend to speak in an unexpected manner, using foul language or playfully jabbing fans while interacting online. It is this element of surprise, says journalist Minoru Hirota, that is part of what is making these avatars so popular.
The other way in which VTubers are different than, say, an anime character, is that they do not adhere to a script. VTubers fill the gap between human YouTubers and cartoons by being a computer-generated image that acts of its own free will. This is a refreshing take on the tired formula of a YouTube vlog or an episode of an animated television show.
Kizuna AI, “The Big Four”, And The Future of VTubers
Kizuna AI debuted in 2016 and has paved the way for the VTuber movement. As previously mentioned, Ami Yamato is credited with being the first virtual vlogger, but it was Kizuna AI’s immediate popularity that has brought recent attention to this type of YouTubing. She has three YouTube channels, and her main account currently has almost three million followers.
Kaguya Luna came on the scene in 2017, and with nearly one million subscribers, she is the second most popular Japanese VTuber. She is described as “energetic and free-spirited”, and has a unique and charming look. She is known for being cheeky and sometimes vulgar which, for many fans, adds to her entertainment value.
These two VTubers, along with Mirai Akari and Cyber Girl Shiro, make up the “Big Four”, a name ascribed to them by fans looking for a way to group the top virtual YouTubers. They all debuted between 2016 and 2017 and remain just as popular today.
Between them, the “Big Four” are also DJ’s, or recording artists with popular singles. They hold major live events, including concerts, and have appeared on television. Kizuna AI is the face of Nissin’s Instant Ramen Cup O’ Noodles, and Kaguya Luna is the face of Nissin’s Yakisoba UFO Noodles.
With all of these opportunities to reach out to fans online, “in person”, and through music and merchandise, the popularity of virtual YouTubers shows no sign of stopping.
There is also the chance to make serious cash, as evidenced by Kaguya Luna and Kizuna AI’s endorsement deals with Nissin. Major corporations are ready to invest in these new, virtual performers. We can expect to see more of these popular VTubers as the face of different products and in more advertisements, and see an uptick in virtual YouTube talent in general.
The other part of the appeal of this type of online performance is the opportunity to express oneself behind the mask of a character, and behind the protection of the Internet. Virtual YouTubing allows someone who may be a shy, talented performer to comfortably share their gifts with a huge audience.