Virtual Stars Part 1: An Analysis of Viability

(I've noticed talks about the Vocaloid Concerts echoing around the internet, and wanted to address the idea behind virtual stars in more detail.  Seriously, when you see a post on it at an econoblog, you know it's time to comment.)

If you pay attention to the news, you'll see occasional discussion about Virtual Stars, completely manufactured media people.  The ones I see talked about are mostly in Japan, such as Kyoko Date back in the late 90's, or the prominent Vocaloid phenomena today.  These creations ventures often seem to be a cultural curiosity (especially outside of Japan), an oddity, or something out of a bad anime or science fiction film.  I think there's something useful in the virtual idol/virtual star concept that I want to explore as worthy of actual consideration as a viable commercial exercise

I think the Virtual Star may be an effective business/marketing/media/product creation model.  I think that it is a venture worth considering for artists, writers, creator, and so forth, and I'm going to explore its validity.  After all, making a Virtual Star is a profoundly progeeky endeavor.

Before I dive into the commercial validity simulated stars, let me state clearly what I'm talking about when I use the term Virtual Star:

  1. The creation of a completely artificial media figure whose image, behavior, story, and personality are made up.
  2. This entity has no single component traceable as a contribution of an actual human being – no single voice actor, artist, etc.  The Virtual Star is an entirely artistic creation that cannot be rendered down to being identified with a single person, unlike an animated character with a popular voice actor or being distinctly modeled on a single human being.  In short, there is no one person "behind" the Virtual Star that defines them publicly and can in turn become a subject of devotion.
  3. The entity is treated as real in most media produced around it, but it is acknowledged that the entity is completely virtual.  There is no deception involved.

Such a creation may sound excessive or ridiculous at best, or strange and perverse at worse.  However, I feel that it is a viable media model for several reasons, which I'll explore here.  By exploring this seemingly odd phenomena, I hope to give my readers some insights, and perhaps help them explore if it would be a worthy endeavor for their own artistic and technical skills.

Though I probably will feel a bit strange about it.

REASON FOR VIRTUAL STAR VIABILITY 1: A History of Virtual And Semi-Virtual Stars, Especially for the Young
Look at any media saturated culture and ask yourself, for a moment, if anything that is similar to a Virtual Star has a following.  Instantly you'll realize that's the case all over the world.  From classic mascots (such as a certain mouse) to fictional characters, people are used to following, loving, and even obsessing over beings that never were.

Go on walk into any mall.  How  many fictional characters that are beloved stare at you from t-shirts, posters, toys, and even record albums?  We're used to a lot of the concepts of a Virtual Stars, even if the characters in question don't fit all of the traits I noted.  In fact, we really take it for granted.

Virtual Stars and creations like them are not old. If you think such simulated celebrities came into existence in the last 10-20 years, all I can say is "Alvin and the Chimpmunks."  The infamous rodentine trio are essentially Virtual Stars by my definitions (though some may quibble that they were easily identified with Bagdasarian's initial voice work).  They actually earned five Grammies along with other awards – three virtual chipmunks won Grammies.

Children are raised among Virtual Stars and fictional celebrities: Alvin and the Chipmunks in the 50's and 60's.  Gem and the Holograms (there does seem to be a trend of musical virtual stars) had their cartoon include MTV-like song descriptions adding a kind of wall-breaking realism.  Sesame Street and Disney gave us many "stars" that weren't real.

Many modern Virtual Stars or that come to mind are meant for children and pre-teens: Alvin and the Chimpmunks, the characters of "Sesame Street," and more.  But if you think about this obsession over fictionalized people has been a long-range and adult phenomena as well . . .

REASON FOR VIRTUAL STAR VIABILITY 2: Fictionalization of Stars
So we've been used to virtual stars probably longer than we think, or at least prototypes of said virtual stars, often youth-oriented.  But there's another foundation laid for Virtual Stars – the fictionalization of real stars.

From the carefully staged-events and news focused on stars past, to novels fictionalizing media stars (anyone remember the Olsen Twins?), to stars outright getting their own games (50 Cent), we are used to stars being fictionalized.  We're used to, as a culture, dealing with people who are both real and unreal, both actor and role – Wrestling is a fantastic example of this.

In some cases you had people who achieved a strange fusion of fictitious and real, where the media, hype, the star, and the story blended into one ambiguous mass.  Michael Jackson is probably the strongest example I can find, a man appearing in videos, movies, doing albums, even being in video games.  Even in death he retains a strange mythical/fictional/unreal air despite his vast personal problems and pathologies.

From fictionalizing real stars to taking an interest in purely fictional stars seems to be a short leap to me.  In fact you can see another case of fictionalization that's become very prominent in the 21st century . . .

REASON FOR VIRTUAL STAR VIABILITY 3: Reality Television's Starmaking Power
Reality Television, which of course is often less real than it seems (or even more unreal than it seems), is another fictionalizing agent.  It isn't a case of stars becoming fictionalized, but usually turns people into stars (I consider Reality TV's use of existing stars to fall under reason #2, above) by fictionalizing them.

Reality television fictionalizes real people, putting them into roles that aren't (necessarily) them, creating storylines and personal branding.  The Reality TV stars are both real and unreal, virtual and solid, "random" individuals yet following stories that we expect.  Reality TV has gotten us further used to fictionalizing individuals, individuals that are not "stars" to begin with.

Reality TV stars exist in that strange fiction/fact netherworld that many regular stars do, though they got to that state by a different manner.  Of course media has been giving us other fictionalized stars in other entertainment . . .

One lesson I have taken away from gaming is that characters you interact with, no matter how strange, crudely rendered, or annoying, will find fans.  There's something about interacting with virtual people that, as long as the game is reasonably well done, people will find compelling.  If it's not well done and the characters are interesting, amusing, or good-looking, they'll also be found compelling.

When you see the level of devotion people can have for game characters (and see how well done some are), then you see a hint of the Virtual Star potential.  These CGI-and-script constructs can be really compelling to people if done right.  Also, over time, the idea of people linking, collecting merchandise, or being attracted to game characters seems .  .. well not always normal, but acceptable.

Gaming has gotten us used to completely or nearly-completely virtual characters we interact with.  Part of this is also due to advances in . . .

Right now the technology is out there for people to create one hell of a virtual show.  Gaming, holograms, movie CGI.  Think of the compelling characters in CGI movies.  Think of the compelling characters in gaming.  Think of what you've seen in special effects.

Think of all the technology available right now.

Technology lets us churn out everything we need for a simulated human being if you have enough time and money:

  • Visuals can be done via CGI.
  • Voices can be done with actors, or vocal simulators, or a mix.
  • A Virtual Star can communicate via ghostwritten Facebook or Twitter posts.
  • A Virtual Star could have a ghostwritten blog.
  • Assorted holographic or video technology can let the star interact with others, say interviews or appearing on stage.

In short, we can create fake, virtual people, pretty easy with all the trappings we'd associate with a normal star.  People have been doing it with CGI and in games for awhile.

Virtual Stars are entirely viable as cultural and entertainment personalities because of cultural acclimation and pioneers of virtual stars, an increasing shift towards accepting blurred reality-fiction boundaries, and compelling and effective uses of technology.  In short it can be done, done well, and the cultural underpinnings for acceptance are there.

Of course you may ask why someone would make a Virtual Star.  I'll explore that next column . . .

– Steven Savage