A virtual YouTuber (Japanese: バーチャルユーチューバー, Hepburn: bācharu yūchūbā) or VTuber (ブイチューバー, buichūbā) is an online entertainer who uses a virtual avatar generated using computer graphics. A digital trend that originated in Japan in the mid-2010s, a majority of VTubers are Japanese-speaking YouTubers or live streamers who use anime-inspired avatar designs. By 2020, there were more than 10,000 active VTubers.
The first entertainer to use the phrase "virtual YouTuber", Kizuna AI, began creating content on YouTube in late 2016. Her popularity sparked a VTuber trend in Japan, and spurred the establishment of specialized agencies to promote them, including Hololive Production and Nijisanji. Fan translations and foreign-language VTubers have marked a rise in the trend's international popularity. Virtual YouTubers have appeared in domestic advertising campaigns in Japan, and have broken live-stream-related world records.
Virtual YouTubers, or VTubers, are online entertainers, who are typically Japanese-speaking YouTubers or live streamers. They use (usually anime-inspired) computer graphics-generated avatars created with programs such as Live2D and with characters designed by online artists. VTubers are considered to have great appeal in that they are not bound by physical limitations and many of them engage in activities that are unconstrained by real-world sex and gender. VTuber models are anthropomorphic, and are sometimes shown as animals or as having non-human traits. VTubers are associated with Japanese popular culture and aesthetics, such as anime and manga. According to the BBC, they are unique in that they are "not constrained by personal or identity issues," and the popularity of VTubers worldwide is due to their "large customer base outside of Japan who love Japanese culture and anime".
On 12 February 2010, visual novel maker Nitroplus began uploading videos to its YouTube channel featuring an animated 3D version of its mascot Super Sonico, who would usually talk to the audience about herself or about releases related to the company. On 13 June 2011, UK-based Japanese vlogger Ami Yamato uploaded her first video, which featured an animated, virtual avatar speaking to the camera. In 2012, Japanese company Weathernews Inc. debuted a vocaloid-like character called Weatheroid Type A Airi on SOLiVE24, a 24-hour weather live stream on Nico Nico Douga, on YouTube and their website. In 2014, Airi got her own solo program every Thursday and began live broadcasting with motion capture.
In late 2016, Kizuna AI, the first VTuber to achieve breakout popularity, made her debut on YouTube. She was the first to coin and use the term "virtual YouTuber". Created by digital production company Activ8 and voice-acted by Nozomi Kasuga, Kizuna AI created a sense of "real intimacy" with fans, as she was responsive to their questions. Within ten months, she had over two million subscribers and later became a culture ambassador of the Japan National Tourism Organization. Kizuna Ai's popularity can be attributed to the oversaturation of traditional webcam YouTubers and for aspects of characters that the audience would not expect. For example, Kizuna Ai despite having a friendly appearance, often swears in her videos when she gets frustrated while playing a game.
The VTuber trend
Kizuna AI's sudden popularity sparked a VTuber trend. Between May and mid-July 2018, the number of active VTubers increased from 2,000 to 4,000. Kaguya Luna and Mirai Akari followed Kizuna as the second and third most popular VTubers, with 750,000 and 625,000 subscribers respectively. Nekomiya Hinata and Siro, two other early VTubers, each gained followings of 500,000 in six months.
In the beginning of 2018, Anycolor Inc. (then known as Ichikara) founded the VTuber agency Nijisanji. Nijisanji helped popularise the use of Live2D models instead of the prior focus on 3D models as well as the shift towards livestreaming instead of edited video and clips that was the standard for VTubers like Kizuna Ai.
After their initial success in Japan, VTubers spread overseas, with agencies like Hololive and Nijisanji creating branches in China, South Korea, Indonesia, and India, as well as English-focused branches. Meanwhile, independent VTubers began to appear in many countries, from Japan to the United States. In July 2018, VTubers had a collective subscriber count of 12.7 million, and more than 720 million total views. By January 2020, there were over 10,000 VTubers. In August 2020, seven of the ten largest Super Chat earners of all time on YouTube were VTubers, including Hololive member Kiryu Coco at number one, who by that time had earned approximately ¥85 million (~$810,000). At the same time, the popularity of VTubers continued to rise on Twitch, a host of several notable English-speaking VTubers such as VShojo members Projekt Melody and Ironmouse.
In September 2020, Anycolor, the management company for Nijisanji, one of the major VTuber agencies in Japan, created an "Aggressive Acts and Slander Countermeasure Team" to offer counselling to victims of harassment and take legal measures against perpetrators of harassment, specifically the online harassment plaguing the Japanese entertainment industry. This announcement came in the wake of Hololive VTuber Mano Aloe's retirement after only two weeks of activity due to online harassment.
YouTube's 2020 Culture and Trends report highlights VTubers as one of the notable trends of that year, with 1.5 billion views per month by October.
Due to their popularity, companies and organisations have used virtual YouTubers as a method of advertising or bringing attention to a product or service. When SoftBank announced the release of the iPhone XS and XS Max in 2018, Kizuna AI appeared at the event and promoted the products on her channel.
In August 2018, Wright Flyer Live Entertainment released a mobile application allowing VTubers to live stream videos while monetizing them and connecting with their viewers. In a news conference in Tokyo, the head of Wright Flyer Live Entertainment stated, "just increasing the number [of VTubers] is not that effective. We want them to keep on doing their activities. [To do that], gaining fans and monetization are essential. So, we are providing a platform to support that". This followed Wright Flyer Live Entertainment's parent company Gree, Inc.'s ¥10 billion ($89.35 million) investment in VTubers, as well as a ¥10 billion sales target by 2020.
Also in August 2018, the Ibaraki Prefectural Government created a VTuber named Hiyori Ibara, aiming to make her a symbol of Ibaraki. Hiyori is the first VTuber to be used by a municipal or prefectural government.
On June 24, 2019, VTuber Kaguya Luna, in collaboration with Nissin Foods to advertise its Yakisoba UFO noodles, held a live stream with a smartphone attached to a helium balloon. By the end of the stream, the smartphone reached an altitude of 30 kilometres (19 mi) above sea level and was noted by Guinness World Records as being the live stream recorded at the highest altitude, breaking the previous record of 18.42 kilometres (11.45 mi).
- Avatar (computing)
- Internet celebrity
- Uncanny valley
- Virtual actor
- Virtual idol
- Virtual influencer
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