Since releasing their debut single I’m Real in 2021, K-pop girl band Eternity has racked up millions of views online.
The members sing, dance and interact with fans like any other band.
But there is a big difference between them and any other pop music group you know: all 11 members are virtual characters, hyper-realistic avatars made based on artificial intelligence.
“What we’re doing with Eternity is new. I think it’s a new genre of music,” says Park Jieun, the woman behind Eternity.
“The advantage of having virtual artists is that while K-pop stars often have physical limitations, or even mental health issues because they are human, virtual artists can be free of that.”
The cultural wave of Korean pop has become a multibillion-dollar force over the past decade. With its head-turning songs, high-tech production and choreographed dance moves, K-pop has broken into the global mainstream, becoming one of South Korea’s most profitable and influential exports.
But K-pop’s top stars, their loyal legions of fans, and the entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on their success are all looking to the future.
With the explosion of artificial intelligence, deepfake and avatar technologies, these pop idols are taking their fame to a whole new dimension.
The virtual faces of the Eternity members were created by deep learning technology company Pulse9. Park Jieun is the CEO of the organization.
Initially, the company generated 101 fictional faces, dividing them into four categories according to the following characteristics: cute, sexy, innocent and smart.
Fans were invited to vote for their favorites. The company’s designers then began to animate the winning characters, according to the fans’ preferences.
For live chats, videos and online fan meetings, avatar faces can be projected onto anonymous singers, actors and dancers hired by Pulse9.
The technology works like a deepfake filter, bringing characters to life.
“Virtual characters can be perfect, but they can also be more human than humans,” Park Jieun tells BBC 100 Women.
As deepfake technology spreads, there are concerns that it could be used to manipulate people’s images without permission or generate dangerous misinformation.
There are reports of women having their faces put in pornographic films, while deepfakes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky were shared on social media.
“I’m always trying to make it clear that these are fictional characters,” says the CEO.
She states that Pulse9 uses the European Union’s Artificial Intelligence ethical guidelines when creating their avatars.
Park Jieun sees even more advantages in virtual bands where each avatar can be controlled by its creators.
“Scandals created by real human K-pop stars can be fun, but they are also a business risk,” he says.
She believes she can make good use of these new technologies and minimize the risks for K-pop artists, who find themselves stressed and pressured trying to keep up with industry demands.
In recent years, K-pop has made headlines over a range of issues — from dating gossip to online trolling, to weight judgments and extreme dieting by band members.
The genre has also sparked a debate about mental health and cyberbullying in South Korea following the tragic deaths of young K-pop stars, who many believe have had a significant impact on their following.
In 2019, singer and actress Sulli was found dead in her apartment, aged 25. She had taken a break from the entertainment industry, after allegedly “suffering physically and mentally from malicious and false rumors that were spread about her”.
Her good friend Goo Hara, another brilliant K-pop artist, was also found dead inside her home in Seoul shortly afterwards. Before taking her own life, Goo was fighting for justice after being secretly filmed by a boyfriend, and was the target of violent abuse online because of it.
Threat or help?
For the human stars who work day and night to rehearse, perform and interact with their fans, having an avatar’s help in the virtual world can provide some relief.
19-year-old Han Yewon is the vocalist of the newly launched girl band Mimiirose, managed by YES IM Entertainment in South Korea.
She spent nearly four years in training, waiting for her opportunity to stand out — and was one of many candidates who had to undergo monthly assessments. Those that didn’t make enough progress were dropped.
“I worried a lot about not being able to debut,” says Yewon.
Becoming a K-pop star is not something that happens overnight. And with new groups launching every year, it can be difficult to stand out.
“I would go to work around ten in the morning and do vocal warm-ups for an hour. After that, I would sing for two or three hours, dance for three to four hours and work out for another two hours”, says the vocalist.
“We trained over 12 hours in total. But if you’re not good enough, you end up staying longer.”
Still, the prospect of virtual avatars flooding the industry worries Yewon, who says fans appreciate their authenticity.
“As technology has improved so much lately, I fear that virtual characters will take the place of human idols,” she says.
Other K-pop groups, however, have been quick to adopt new avatar technologies — and the business is predicted to grow exponentially.
The size of the digital market for humans and avatars is estimated to reach $527.58 billion globally by 2030, according to projections by market consulting firm Emergen Research.
At least four of K-pop’s biggest entertainment companies are investing heavily in virtual elements for their stars, and five of 2022’s top-earning K-pop groups are jumping on the bandwagon.
Using virtual copies of themselves allows them to reach fans in different time zones and break down language barriers — in ways that flesh-and-blood artists would never be able to.
The girl band Aespa, for example, is formed by four human singers and dancers (Karina, Winter, Giselle and Ningning) and their four virtual “correspondents” —known as ae-Karina, ae-Winter, ae-Giselle and ae-Ningning . Avatars can explore virtual worlds with fans and be used across platforms.
Meanwhile, chart-topping girl band Blackpink made history — with the help of their “virtual twins” — by winning MTV’s first award for Best Metaverse Performance 2022.
More than 15 million people around the world have connected to the popular online gaming platform PUBGM to watch the group’s avatars perform in real time.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Moon Sua and her K-pop group Billlie had to cancel performances and live fan meetings. Instead, the company that manages the band created virtual copies of the group members, to throw a party for fans in the virtual world.
“Since it was our first time doing it, we were a little clumsy,” says Sua.
“But over time, we got used to it, talking to the fans while adapting to the virtual world. We had a lot of fun.”
Moon Sua was impressed by the real appearance of the group’s avatars, but says she still prefers to meet the followers in person.
“I don’t think it’s something threatening. Maybe we can learn new skills. I don’t think they’re a threat that can replace us,” says the band’s main rapper.
But there are also some concerns in the industry more generally about ethical and copyright issues that avatar technologies can pose.
“There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to artists in the metaverse, virtual versions, icons of themselves, whatever,” Billboard K-pop columnist Jeff Benjamin tells BBC 100 Women.
“It could be that the artists themselves are not in control of their image and this can create an exploitative situation.”
‘Too early to know’
For fans like 19-year-old Lee Jisoo, who is studying engineering at college, K-pop has been a welcome distraction in times of stress. She has been an ardent fan of the band Billlie since the group’s launch in 2019.
“Their love for their fans is incredible. It’s almost impossible not to love them even more,” says Jisoo.
She collects group-branded albums and merchandise while also interacting with the band online and in the virtual world.
“I feel emotions through Billlie that wouldn’t be felt if I didn’t like the band,” says Jisoo.
“And I’m even more of a fan because I want to give those feelings back to Billlie. I think that’s a positive thing for me.”
But the virtual world can also be a hostile space for K-pop stars and fans, due to the absence of regulations to prevent cyberbullying and abuse or the fact that they are rarely enforced. The industry has been rocked by bullying cases and online smear campaigns waged against successful stars.
“I get more stressed when I see mean comments about Billlie online. Because it’s also an insult to the things I like, so I get stressed and devastated,” says Jisoo.
Child and adolescent psychiatrist Jeong Yu Kim, who works in Seoul, says it’s too early to know how virtual technology and the rise of artificial intelligence characters will affect young people.
“I see that the real problem is that we are not seeing ourselves in an authentic way”, evaluates Jeong Yu.
“In virtual worlds, we can be more free and do things that you can’t do out there, you can be someone else.”
“This K-pop industry is really sensitive to what the public wants, and wants artists to satisfy (demands).”
“As with any entertainment industry, there are a lot of pressures,” says Jeff Benjamin.
“There’s really an expectation that artists always show a good image, they should be a great role model for the fans.”
But, he said, that is changing — and there has been an industry-wide shift to better serve the mental health needs of stars and reduce intense workloads.
“Artists themselves are also opening up about what’s going on with their mental health, and that’s creating a deeper connection with these fans.”
In the ever-changing K-pop industry, it may be too early to tell whether virtual idols are a fad or the future of the music industry.
But for now, for fans like Jisoo, choosing who to follow is easy.
“Honestly, if someone asks me, ‘Do you want to watch Billlie in the metaverse for 100 minutes or in real life for 10 minutes?’ I’d choose to watch Billlie for 10 minutes in real life.”
She believes that “people who like real idols and people who like virtual idols are completely different”—and for a lot of people like her, it would be “difficult” to fall in love with avatars instead of human K-pop stars.
This text was originally published here.
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