These Popular YouTube Influencers Are All AI Avatars: Is This the Future of YouTube?

In the world of YouTube, virtual stars are on the rise. No, we‘re not talking about digital effects or CGI. These are real influencers, with millions of subscribers, who just happen to be AI-generated avatars. Welcome to the age of the VTuber.

What‘s a VTuber? Short for "Virtual YouTuber," a VTuber is an online entertainer who uses a digital avatar instead of showing their real face on camera. These 2D or 3D animated characters are usually in the style of anime or video game characters. But they‘re not just static images – thanks to motion capture technology and real-time rendering, VTubers can interact with their audiences in surprisingly lifelike ways.

While the concept might seem like a niche gimmick, VTubers have exploded in popularity over the past few years. According to data from YouTube, VTuber channels saw a 1500% increase in views between 2017 and 2020. The most popular VTubers boast millions of subscribers and rack up tens of millions of views per video. Some have even crossed over into mainstream celebrity, performing on late night talk shows and collaborating with major brands.

So who are these virtual stars, and why are they so compelling to audiences? Let‘s take a closer look at the world of VTubers and what their rise says about the future of entertainment.

The Origins of VTubers

While virtual influencers might seem like a recent phenomenon, the concept actually dates back several years. Many trace the origins of VTubers to the Japanese video sharing site Niconico, where users began experimenting with crude virtual avatars in the early 2010s.

But the VTuber trend really took off in 2016 with the debut of Kizuna AI, often considered the first true VTuber. Created by the Japanese tech company Activ8, Kizuna AI was a hyperactive anime girl who interacted with fans in real-time using motion capture and machine learning. She quickly became a sensation, racking up millions of views and inspiring a wave of imitators.

Kizuna AI, the pioneering VTuber

Kizuna AI, the pioneering VTuber who debuted in 2016 (Image source: Activ8)

Since then, the VTuber scene has exploded globally. While Japan remains the epicenter, with over 10,000 active VTubers as of 2021, virtual stars have also gained traction in China, South Korea, Indonesia, and English-speaking countries.

Major media companies and talent agencies have gotten in on the action, launching their own virtual idol groups. Hololive Production, a subsidiary of Japanese tech giant Cover Corp, manages dozens of popular VTubers who collectively generate millions of dollars in revenue through merchandise, advertising, and fan donations.

The Appeal of Virtual Influencers

So why are audiences so drawn to virtual entertainers? At first glance, it might seem counterintuitive. We generally think of authenticity and personal connection as key to succeeding as a content creator. How can a virtual avatar foster that same sense of intimacy?

As it turns out, VTubers offer their own form of authenticity. Fans say they appreciate the consistency of the virtual personas, which aren‘t subject to the whims and scandals of human celebrities. The fantasy elements also allow for more escapism and wish fulfillment compared to traditional influencer culture.

"The fictional background of VTubers is very appealing," said one fan in a survey by Japanese advertising agency CyberAgent. "No matter what happens, they won‘t betray my image of them."

This separation between avatar and performer also affords VTubers a level of privacy that‘s increasingly rare for online creators. Many VTubers express a sense of liberation in performing behind a virtual mask.

"I think a lot of [VTubers] are actually quite shy in real life, or they have some sort of insecurity about their real appearances," said Haruka Kuromi, an Indonesian VTuber, in an interview with VICE. "This sort of ‘hiding‘ makes them feel more confident about expressing themselves."

The virtual format also allows for greater creative experimentation and audience interaction compared to regular video content. VTubers often incorporate live animation, on-screen text, and even choose-your-own-adventure elements into their streams. The popular VTuber Ami Yamato, who has over a million YouTube subscribers, is known for her virtual "dates" where she takes audience suggestions on conversation topics and activities.

Ami Yamato hosting a livestream

Ami Yamato, a popular English-language VTuber known for interactive streams (Image source: Ami Yamato)

By the Numbers: The Rising Popularity of VTubers

Just how popular have VTubers become? Let‘s look at some key statistics:

  • As of 2021, there are over 16,000 active VTubers worldwide, with more debuting every day
  • The highest-earning VTuber, Kiryu Coco, generated over $800,000 in Super Chat revenue (YouTube‘s live-streaming donation feature) in 2020 alone
  • VTuber music videos routinely pull in tens of millions of views, with songs like Gawr Gura‘s "Reflect" and Kizuna AI‘s "Sky High" breaking 100 million
  • Live streams by top VTubers can attract over 100,000 concurrent viewers, putting them on par with major esports tournaments and traditional celebrities
  • VTuber videos have an average watch time of 23 minutes, significantly higher than the 11-minute average for YouTube as a whole

Chart of VTuber market growth

The growth of the VTuber market, 2017-2020 (Image source: User Local)

The success of VTubers has also caught the attention of brands eager to reach young, digitally-native audiences. Many VTubers have scored lucrative endorsement deals and sponsorships, including tie-ups with major gaming companies, anime studios, and even convenience store chains.

"VTubers offer a unique marketing opportunity," said Ricky Li, a partner at Japanese digital marketing agency Activ8. "They have highly engaged fan bases who see them more as friends than as celebrity sponsors. That level of trust and influence is very appealing to brands."

The Technology Behind the Avatars

Of course, none of this would be possible without the underlying technology. At their core, VTubers rely on real-time motion capture and rendering to bring their avatars to life. This usually involves a few key components:

  1. Facial tracking: Using a webcam or iPhone camera, AI algorithms detect and map the performer‘s facial expressions to the avatar. This includes lip syncing, blinking, and subtle micro-expressions.

  2. Upper body tracking: By wearing sensors or using a depth-sensing camera, VTubers can also map their upper body movements to the avatar, allowing for gestures, dancing, and more dynamic blocking.

  3. Voice modulation: Many VTubers use software to modify their voices to sound more like their avatar. This can include pitch shifting, adding sound effects, or even generating an entirely synthetic voice.

Diagram of VTuber motion capture setup

A typical VTuber motion capture setup (Image source: Medialab)

One of the pioneers in this space is the Japanese company Activ8 (now called Noderact), which developed the popular "3D Puppet" software used by Kizuna AI and many other VTubers. More recently, we‘ve seen the rise of dedicated VTuber studios like Luppet and VirtuReal, which provide full-service avatar creation and streaming support.

On the consumer side, there are now numerous apps and plugins that allow anyone to create a basic VTuber avatar using just a smartphone. Apple‘s Animoji and Memoji features use similar facial tracking technology as VTuber software. Snapchat‘s desktop app Snap Camera lets users superimpose animated lenses on their real faces during video chats and live streams.

As these tools become more accessible and user-friendly, we could see an explosion of amateur VTubers alongside the professional studios. In much the same way that YouTube democratized video creation, VTubing could lower the barrier to entry for aspiring entertainers and public figures.

Beyond Entertainment: Use Cases for AI Avatars

While VTubers are primarily an entertainment phenomenon, the underlying avatar technology has potential applications across many industries. For example:

  • Education: AI avatars could serve as engaging virtual instructors, making online courses more interactive and personalized. They could also be used for immersive language learning, allowing students to practice conversations with AI characters.

  • Customer service: Companies are already using chatbots and virtual assistants to handle routine inquiries. With AI avatars, these helpers could have visual representations to make the experience more lifelike and build trust with customers.

  • Virtual events: From trade shows to academic conferences, many events have gone virtual due to the pandemic. AI avatars could enable more engaging digital networking by providing attendees with expressive digital stand-ins.

  • Accessibility: For people with disabilities or social anxiety, interacting through an avatar could provide a sense of comfort and control. AI avatars could serve as visual interpreters for the deaf or text-to-speech aids for the blind.

  • Therapy: Some researchers believe AI avatars could be used in mental health treatment, providing a judgement-free "listening ear" for patients to express their feelings. Virtual therapy has already shown promise for treating conditions like PTSD and phobias.

Risks and Ethical Considerations

Of course, the rise of AI avatars is not without risks and challenges. As the technology becomes more sophisticated, it will raise important questions about identity, authenticity, and the line between the real and virtual worlds.

One concern is the potential for deception. As AI-generated content becomes harder to distinguish from the real thing, bad actors could use virtual personas for misinformation, propaganda, or online abuse. We‘ve already seen instances of fake AI-generated personas being used to dupe journalists and spread conspiracy theories on social media.

There are also valid concerns around addiction and unhealthy parasocial relationships with virtual characters. While many fans see VTubers as harmless entertainment, others worry about vulnerable youth becoming too emotionally attached to artificial personas.

As the technology advances, we‘ll need robust disclosure and transparency standards around the use of AI avatars. Just as influencers are required to label sponsored content, there may need to be clear indicators when a persona is partially or fully AI-generated.

It will also be important to have supports in place for the human performers behind the avatars. As the demand for VTuber content grows, so too will the pressure on creators to maintain their virtual presence around the clock. Burnout and mental health challenges are already rampant among traditional influencers – let‘s not repeat those mistakes with virtual entertainers.

The Future of AI Avatars

Despite these challenges, it‘s clear that AI avatars are here to stay. As the technology continues to improve and become more accessible, we can expect to see virtual influencers playing a larger role in our digital lives.

In the entertainment world, VTubers are already expanding beyond YouTube into music, gaming, and interactive media. We could see the rise of entirely virtual pop stars, actors, and even talk show hosts. At the same time, smaller creators will take advantage of avatar tools to express themselves in new ways and reach niche audiences.

Brands, too, will likely embrace virtual ambassadors as a way to connect with digitally-native consumers. Imagine logging onto your favorite ecommerce site and being greeted by a helpful AI avatar who can recommend products based on your preferences. Or attending a virtual conference keynote delivered by a hyper-realistic AI version of a famous thought leader.

In education and training, AI avatars could revolutionize how we learn by providing personalized, interactive instruction at scale. Students might have A personal AI tutor who can adapt to their learning style and give instant feedback. Professionals could practice new skills with responsive AI simulations rather than passive training videos.

Over time, our interactions with AI avatars may become so ordinary that we hardly think twice about whether we‘re engaging with a human or a virtual being. The line between the physical and digital worlds will blur as we grow accustomed to expressing ourselves and forging relationships through virtual intermediaries.

But even in that hyper-digital future, it‘s important to remember the human element behind the avatars. Behind every VTuber is a real person putting in the creative work, even if we never see their physical form. And no matter how engaging the illusion, a virtual personality can never fully replace the depth and complexity of a real human relationship.

As we experiment with the possibilities of artificial intelligence, let us not lose sight of the fundamental human traits that make us who we are – our capacity for original thought, genuine emotion, and meaningful connection. The true promise of AI avatars is not to replace human potential, but to enhance it in service of building a more creative, expressive, and connected world.