Holographic Idols Give Chinese Fans Real Satisfaction
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2017-08-21 12:42:08

SHANGHAI — The lights dimmed, and a euphoric buzz overtook the thousands of young people who had packed themselves into Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena for the evening’s entertainment.

As he waved his glow stick and chanted along with his peers, 16-year-old fan Shen Zhong kept his eyes trained on the stage where his idol would soon appear. The high schooler had traveled around 1,700 kilometers to be there for the concert in late July, and he didn’t want to miss a moment.

But the pigtailed object of Shen’s infatuation, appearing that evening in a strapless sky-blue dress, is not human. Rather, she is a computer program — a digitally composed holographic figure called Luo Tianyi, whose prerecorded form dances and sings across a vast screen in front of adoring fans.

Created in 2012 as a collaborative project by Japanese conglomerate Yamaha Corporation and Chinese virtual celebrity company Thstars, Luo Tianyi holds the title of China’s first virtual singer, following a wave of success among similar virtual stars in Japan. For most of her short life, she has existed only in the online world, but July’s concert — Luo Tianyi’s second — is a sign that her developers see marketable demand for “live” performance. In the words of Thstars’ general manager, Cao Pu, Luo Tianyi is ready to “break the wall between the two-dimensional world and the three-dimensional world.”

Shen Zhong, a Luo Tianyi fan, discusses his love for virtual idols and the so-called two-dimensional world. By Wu Yue, Wu Huiyuan, and Liu Jingwen/Sixth Tone

The term erciyuan, or “two-dimensional world,” is used interchangeably with “ACG” in China to refer to the Japanese-influenced subculture surrounding anime, comics, and games that not only attracts hordes of fans, but also inspires them to contribute to active fandoms through user-generated content (UGC).

In fact, UGC lies at the heart of virtual singers like Luo Tianyi. While her appearance and movements are crafted by Thstars technicians, her musical body of work is almost entirely crowdsourced. Any songwriter with enough technical and musical know-how can input lyrics and melodies into a music editing program to be synthesized based on a bank of vocals provided by a voice actor.

Songs are often uploaded to online video-sharing communities like Bilibili, an enclave for China’s multifarious world of ACG and the chief organizer of Luo Tianyi’s July concert. If a song goes viral, there is a good chance it will be purchased by Thstars to be used in live performances, with the song’s creator receiving a one-off payment from the company.

One such song that has gone down particularly well with Luo Tianyi’s fans is “In Praise of a Thousand-Year Recipe,” which she performed at the recent Shanghai concert. In it, she sings about gorging on all kinds of food as a response to the trials and tribulations of living in this “big and chaotic world”:

Donkey burger and sticky pork rice
Sweet-and-sour pork tenderloin
Tiger’s claw pastry, glutinous rice rolls
Don’t forget stinky tofu

The lyrics might seem trivial to some, but not to Shen, whose relationship with Luo Tianyi is deeply emotional. The high schooler and only child, who hails from Changchun in northeastern China’s Jilin province, speaks of Luo Tianyi as an innocent-minded and pure-hearted younger sister. “Before she came into my life, I felt a bit lonely,” he said, adding that she has filled an empty space in his heart. “Even though she doesn’t talk to me face to face in real life, or live with me, or eat with me, having someone like her who can communicate with me gives me such happiness and fulfillment.”

Before [Luo Tianyi] came into my life, I felt a bit lonely.

Luo Tianyi’s rising popularity since her creation five years ago suggests that she resonates with many others like Shen. Over 1.7 million people follow her official account on microblogging platform Weibo, thousands have uploaded user-generated songs to Bilibili, some fans share their own cartoon renderings of her in different outfits on social media, and still others even dress up like her.

Fans’ engagement with Luo Tianyi is at the root of the virtual celebrity concept, Cao told Sixth Tone. “Luo Tianyi is not created by us — we merely provide a platform for her,” Cao said. “You can think of her as an alien, an earthling, a maid, or a queen — she can be everything and anything.”

Targeting fans between the ages of 10 and 30, Thstars decided to introduce Luo Tianyi to the real world in emulation of the success of Hatsune Miku, possibly the world’s most famous holographic star. Since her debut in 2007, the Japanese virtual singer has toured internationally, appeared in numerous advertisements, and spawned a whole host of related merchandise.

Luo Tianyi’s first foray into the 3-D world came in February 2016, when she appeared live on Hunan Television’s Spring Festival gala in a duet with ’90s pop diva Yang Yuying. “After we appeared on a mainstream media platform, people started to recognize us,” said Cao. “They were like, ‘Wow, that’s awesome.’”

Virtual idol Luo Tianyi appears on screen at a concert in Shanghai, July 21, 2017. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

Virtual idol Luo Tianyi appears on screen at a concert in Shanghai, July 21, 2017. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

Following her live performance debut, Luo Tianyi sang the theme song for the Chinese version of the film “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows”; performed alongside five other Thstars virtual singers at the company’s first official concert in June; and, most recently, featured at the July gig that Shen attended.

Despite Cao’s faith in Luo Tianyi’s real-world prospects, the singer’s popularity has not translated into profit, even though attendees paid up to 1,280 yuan (around $190) per ticket for the nearly sold-out June concert. Staying true to Luo Tianyi’s UGC beginnings, Thstars is at the mercy of fan-made songs going viral, which can be something of a waiting game.

Yet not everyone in the industry is wedded to the UGC model. Ren Li, a former developer at Thstars who left the company in 2015 to set up a rival virtual celebrity firm, is taking a different tack. Ren, whom Yamaha appointed in 2011 to develop Luo Tianyi, is the founder of Shanghai WangCheng Information Technology Co. Ltd., which launched its first three virtual celebrities in May.

Luo Tianyi is not created by us — we merely provide a platform for her.

“China isn’t ready for UGC,” Ren told Sixth Tone. “Of all the songs created for Luo Tianyi, how many are popular?” Instead, Shanghai WangCheng enlists the talents of professional composers, songwriters, and producers to create content.

However, Cao believes that given enough time, China’s amateur online composers can churn out better songs. “When Hatsune Miku first came out, the quality of her songs was criticized, too,” Cao said. She likened songwriting to the process of learning to write Chinese characters: “The first character you write may be ugly, but after you write hundreds of characters, your writing will become much better.”

Despite their different visions, both Cao and Ren believe that the Chinese mainstream is ready for virtual singers — even though neither Thstars nor Shanghai WangCheng is turning a profit just yet. “Erciyuan has become a social phenomenon,” said Ren. “Even those who know nothing about erciyuan at least know the word.”

For Shen — who said he doesn’t have many friends back home in Changchun — Luo Tianyi’s foray into the real world has brought him further companionship, allowing him to meet scores of fellow devotees at the July concert. “I found that just by exchanging a few words with the people around me,” he said, “in that moment, we became great friends.”

Editor: Owen Churchill.

(Header image: Fans wave glow sticks at a virtual idol concert in Shanghai, July 21, 2017. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone)