By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
Available with the VARK app on Oculus and Quest 2 (VR); regular version on Android, iOS, and Niconico (non VR)
If only Virtual YouTubers existed back in the 1980s, I’m sure EVE from Megazone 23 would’ve endured beyond the golden age of anime. She’d even be ‘upgraded’ with the times. Well, technically, she was an avatar, a computer program designed to keep an eye on the people of Earth on floating cities. Her presence is meant to keep the populace happy, and the virtual idols of today serve a similar purpose. Their celebrity lifestyle is something fans want to follow; Himemori Luna (姫森ルーナ) and Natsuiro Matsuri (夏色まつり) is ) are two beloved video bloggers on YouTube who have a massive following. According to the VTuber Wiki, the number of subscribers to these idols and many more number in the millions. These two are the latest to perform a virtual concert last weekend!
Cinderella Switch -Futari de miru Hololive- cycles through popular virtual idol singers per show and unlike their regular YouTube content, which also puts their life on spotlight, these performances allow fans see them sing from the best seat in the house. The shows are “managed” by VARK Inc, considered a leader in this VR concert industry, and software that’s developed puts viewers into a cartoon.
This show realizes the two as best of friends. One is sweet and naive, and the other a ball of fire. Their shows are approximately an hour long, consisting of five tracks. Luna’s repertoire was bouncy, and Matsuri’s more varied (her show’s production value is a lot more varied). They sing covers of tunes composed by other artists, ranging from 40mp to DECO*27, and the emotional value is everything I’d expect from a Urusei Yatsura EDM mix-tape. Notable favourites include Ugoku, Uogoku (Chito & Yuuri), Paprika (Foorin) and U&I (Houkago Tea Time).
My exposure to this subculture is one of curiosity. I enjoy J-pop from time to time and every decade, the style is slightly different. Today’s idol talents tend to borrow from Ariana Grande and I’m thankful J-pop is not going in that direction. The whole manufactured boy band (or girl) craze will always be around. Viewers are watching a show with antics that looks pre-recorded (the animations). The singing and music playing may well be the only real aspect that’s “live.” The tech crew behind these streaming virtual performances handle sync issues and audio mixing so the two gel.
I like to know how the technical end works, and am making an educated guess: MikuMukuDance, an animation program, handles the tasks of making these characters come to life. There’s no AI to track what each viewer–which can number in the tens of thousands–are doing. You’re in this virtual space to comfortably sing and dance along in the privacy of your own home. With this particular series, viewers are watching the show with the next singer standing next to you, waiting to be next on the stage. They can’t talk back. Other productions in this series include the talent serenading you, which is cute.
In the Cinderella Switch series, Luna begins the show and Matsuri is the cheerleader; they swap roles. There’s roughly half an hour intermission so you can get a drink or quickly recharge your Oculus before the next set. Despite the technical difficulties in realizing this entertainment medium (the lip sync is not always perfect), I enjoyed the real life concert quality light shows–it isn’t overdone. Other effects, like confetti, fire and smoke, depend on the show. Heavy metal stadium acts, like KISS, really go overboard and I’d rate VARK’s broadcasts a 6 out of 10 on the KISS-o-meter. Two points are lost since you have to pay real world money to have anything to throw on stage or “present” the singer with. There’s no freebees. Plus, the fireworks are not rendered “in-game” but are stock effects.
Anything using particle physics will end up looking like it’s from a dated video game. Instead, fun creative effects like flowers and star-shaped balloons are offered. Since we know this reality is a digital one, seeing bubbles and musical notes hover around gives the show a distinct look.
Since Cinderella Switch is about featuring the latest virtual talents, a huge gathering of this year’s hottest with previous is expected at some point in time, and I’ll tune in for it. I want to see VARK or some other entertainment leader do Gorillaz in this type of virtual space but include a joystick so the viewer is watching as though they are the drone camera! Coming up next are VTubers Shirakami Fubuki (who’s appeared in Neptunia Virtual Stars, World of Warships, and Disgaea 6: Defiance of Destiny) and Ookami Mio, (Dawn of the Breakers) from the Hololive GAMERS squad. This show is set for Saturday, April 24 at 9 AM CET / 4 AM EDT / 5:00 PM JST.
There’s a larger fan base for this type of content in the Asias than the West. VARK’s product needs to add English subtitles to go with their broadcasts so audiences from other countries can join in and understand. It’s definitely needed when these virtual idols are speaking. When they sing, it’s not as important because you’re there to enjoy the mood which goes with the song and dance along.
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