Virtual YouTubers could change the way we interact – forever

William Gibson’s cyber future continues to grow in our real present. For example, did you know you now can create almost perfect video AI replicas of yourself to serve as your interweb stand-ins? No expertise needed? Read on.

A young Japanese woman sporting a giant pink bow and white opera gloves looks into the camera and gleefully greets her YouTube audience. She’s about to try and solve a puzzle.

Before diving into the game, she boasts with a smile: “Well, compared to all you humans, I can clear it much faster. No doubt about it!”

Yes, this YouTube personality isn’t a real person. While she’s voiced by a human, she’s a digital, anime-style cartoon. Her name is Kizuna Ai, and she has more than two million subscribers to her channel. She’s the most-watched “virtual YouTuber” on the site.

Kizuna Ai is part of an emerging trend where 3D avatars – rather than humans – are becoming celebrities on YouTube, with dedicated fanbases and corporate deals. It’s becoming so popular that one company is investing tens of millions in “virtual talent” and talent agencies are being established to manage these avatars.

It’s a movement that has big implications for the future – it could change how brands market their products and how we interact with technology. It could even let us live forever.

They act and sound just like humans

Usually, vloggers are people who speak directly into the camera to their fans, sharing things like beauty tips, product reviews and pop culture rants. But in the past year they have had to contend with “VTubers” like Kizuna Ai.

“We saw this start to take off right at the end of 2017… and it’s continued to grow,” says Kevin Allocca, head of culture and trends at YouTube. He points to Kizuna Ai’s channel as an example of the spike in VTuber popularity: it had around 200,000 subscribers last December, but well over two million just 10 months later.

Google’s Earnest Pettie says the amount of daily views of VTuber videos this year is quadruple last year’s figure. And while there’s no easy way to measure exactly how many VTubers there are, User Local, a Tokyo-based web analytics site, counts at least 2,000.

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