Virtual humans: When the real thing can't hack it anymore
Lee Lu-da, a 20-year-old university student, loves hanging out with her friends and eating chicken. Lee studies psychology and is a heavy user of social media. Her life goal is to make a world in which no one feels loneliness.
Jung Sae-jin, who was born in 2002 in Busan, is a K-pop idol. He has 33,000 followers on Instagram and is a big fan of cartoons "One Piece" and "Case Closed," also known as "Detective Conan."
But neither Lee nor Jung actually exist.
They are virtual humans created by computers and computer-generated images, and they have been drawing fans and followers just like the real thing, possibly even doing a better job of pleasing the masses than their human counterparts.
Local entertainment and IT companies are hoping to cash in on developing virtual humans gaining popularity among social media users.
Virtual stars are nothing new. They go back to the 1990s, when Kyoko Date was introduced by Tokyo’s Horipro, and Adam, Korea’s first virtual singer, debuted.
But now, given the technology, it may be easier to monetize the machines.
Scatter Lab, the company that created Lee Lu-da, said it had the program study actual conversations of couples. Lee is able to use some jargon or slang terms that young people use while chatting with their friends. She can even send a picture to a messenger buddy.
“Lee Lu-da is an entity that can help people cope with their loneliness.” Choi Ye-ji, a manager at Scatter Lab, said.
The virtual humans are currently expanding their presence in the K-pop idol market.
aespa, a girl group from the SM Entertainment stable, has four human members and four virtual members. The avatars are programed to mimic the actions and personalities of the humans to communicate with the fans.
Deep Studio, an entertainment company that created virtual idol Jung Sae-jin last year, says computer-generated talent can solve the fundamental problem existing in K-pop market.
“A human cannot be excellent in everything, such as dancing, singing, looks or personality — which are the basic requirements to be a K-pop idol,” Ryu Ki-hyun, CEO of Deep Studio said. “Just like Riot Games’ virtual girl group K/DA, each member must take a part, and virtual humans or AI technology would be able to achieve what they are lacking.”
Virtual influencers Lil Miquela, created by Los Angeles-based Brud, and Imma from Tokyo’s Aww, were two of the first comers to the market.
Being a model for Prada, Calvin Klein and Samsung, Lil Miquela currently has more than 2.9 million followers on Instagram. The value of Brud reached about 154.8 billion won ($139.8 million) as of end of the last year driven largely by the popularity of Lil Miquela.
Imma is an influencer with 330,000 followers and has appeared in advertisements for IKEA, Porsche and cosmetics brand SK-II.
“I’m a virtual girl. I’m interested in Japanese culture, film and art,” reads her profile on Instagram.
Choi Jee-hyun, a venture capitalist at SoftBank Ventures Asia, says development of virtual humans is still in the early stage, but has great potential.
They “are no longer just something that replaces human labor. They are able to communicate with humans and help them to cope with their loneliness,” Choi said.
Choi Ji-hye, a researcher at Seoul National University’s Research Institution of Human Ecology, agrees with him. She believes that very young people, especially those born after 2010, have less of a problem connecting with computer-driven virtual humans. They were, she notes, born talking to smart speakers.
She adds that they can share their deep feelings even with a listener that is a machine.
BY KIM JUNG-MIN, CHEA SARAH [firstname.lastname@example.org]