If you had told me I’d live to see the day that Hatsune Miku could potentially be shoved off her virtual girl throne, I would have laughed at the unrealistic idea. Well, here we are in 2019, and I’ve been sorely proved wrong. Virtual YouTuber extraordinaire Kizuna AI has just released original music, and is very realistically poised to snatch Hatsune Miku’s crown. Kizuna AI Is an interesting evolution of the virtual girl, and a predictor of how the virtual girl will further evolve.
A Little Primer on Our Current Virtual / Anime Girls
Virtual girls in this article refer to digitally rendered 2-D girls like Hatsune Miku and Kizuna AI. I consider other iconic anime girls who have become idols in the popular imagination virtual girls, too, like Lynn Minmay from ROBOTECH. The most relevant example of a virtual girl in American culture is probably Lil Miquela, a CGI influencer on Instagram. I use anime girl and virtual girl interchangeably here, since they mean the same thing in this context.
Hatsune Miku gets reintroduced every few years in American media to some approximation of an “impossibly thin, large eyed, blue haired virtual anime songstress,” so you might have heard of her. She’s the anthropomorphic mascot of a voice synthesizing software’s voice bank, and is a wildly popular “virtual idol.” Kizuna AI, on the other hand, is a rather recent phenomenon. She represents the rising class of virtual reality YouTube stars. Her main channel, A.I Channel, has 2,506,128 subscribers, and her gaming channel has 1,326,602 subscribers. Along with having those impressive numbers, she’s also a woman of taste. Her latest gaming video was a play through of SEKIRO: SHADOWS DIE TWICE, which is an awesome game. In the age of YouTubers and influencers, Kizuna AI is the evolved version of the virtual idol.
Slippery Boundaries Between the Virtual Girl and Real Girl
What we know is that Kizuna AI is animated by Miku Miku Dance and motion-capture technology. The full process of how she’s put together is a mystery. But by the Internet’s hypothesis, a real human most likely voices Kizuna AI and facial-tracking technology produces her facial expressions. Knowing this, Kizuna AI is an interesting step forward from Hatsune Miku. Hatsune Miku’s personality, look, voice, and presence is pretty much an entirely digitally manufactured product. Kizuna AI, on the other hand, feels weirdly more organic. She’s voiced by an actual human and her movements are so fluid because they’re created with motion capture technology.
In essence, yes, they’re both digital because Hatsune Miku and Kizuna AI are just animated graphics on a screen, but Kizuna AI feels like a strange collision of reality and the digital. She’s reality augmented, and draws closer together what we consider to be the digital and the physical world. The lines between the physical and virtual girl blur with her, because she’s a mix and match of elements from reality and digital renderings.
You Can Also Be a Kizuna AI
We’re only going to see more intertwining of the digital and physical worlds, with the technology to be an anime girl easily within everybody’s reach. I jokingly call it the democratization of the anime girl because people other than corporate companies (Hatsune Miku) or teams (Kizuna Ai) can make anime girls now. There’s quite a handful of apps that offer anime girl avatars you can control with facial tracking recognition (with varying degrees of sensitivity and accuracy, of course.) You, or literally anybody, can now make and be a virtual girl.
Meitu, one of the world’s biggest photo filter app, has added an “anime girl” feature. The app uses facial tracking technology to produce an avatar that moves as you do, and it’s actually pretty accurate. I reviewed Meitu’s anime girl feature and three other apps.
Hololive is an app that uses face-tracking to get a virtual avatar to mimic your movements. I count 3 anime girl and 1 anime boy options, which is a bit limiting. The process: you open the app, hit screen record, start talking and moving, and the avatar will start responding. It’s not precise by any means, but it captures the gist of your movements. The mouth didn’t quite line up with my real moving mouth, but the head motion was quite accurate. The only issue is that it definitely doesn’t capture an extended range of emotion, like disgust or happiness.
Puppemoji only works on the iPhone X, so I didn’t get to try it because I have an iPhone 7. Buying a $1000 phone in this economy? Yeah, no. You can check out other people’s Puppemoji test videos here and here.
The gist of how it works is that it superimposes an anime girl onto your face by using iPhone X’s “3-D face tracking” capabilities. From what I’ve seen, the app does a pretty good job at picking up eyeball, eyebrow, and mouth expression, as well as head movement. It’s by far the most advanced of the apps here.
Puppemoji does give you a little more than some of the other apps. With the option to change backgrounds and pitch of your voice, this program gives people a chance to personalize their virtual girl. But without testing it, it’s hard for me to say positively whether or not it’s that great. And at the iPhone X’s price point, testing it out probably won’t happen anytime soon. However, from what I’ve seen, it does look like fun!
Meitu’s a famous and popular photo-editing app. You can enlarge your eyes, slim down your face, get rid of blemishes, and slap on any amount of filters you want. In December 2018, it added a feature where you can embody an anime avatar, called Meitu AI. The app uses “facial detection, facial landmark detection, facial attribute analysis,” and augmented reality technology to generate an anime girl that moves as you do.
It scans your face to create an individualized anime avatar. My scan wasn’t very accurate. You can, however, change your eye shape, nose shape, lip shape, and hairstyles from options offered. You could also change your avatar’s outfit and background. I also thought the app was quite good at picking up the movement of my eyebrows, mouth, and head, but it definitely doesn’t capture the full range of human expression. I tried to make disgusted and sad faces, but the avatar refused to portray those emotions. Another downside of the app is that you can only record 15 seconds of the avatar. I wanted to record a whole monologue and upload it to YouTube!
Published in the app store last September, Evki is fairly new. I also didn’t find any resources on it that were in English. The app itself is entirely in Japanese. However, it’s quite intuitive to navigate. Just make sure to have your screen recording on and your microphone enabled.
The app provides different sets of avatars for you to choose from. When you start to speak, the anime avatar’s mouth moves in tandem. It’s a very rough approximation and there are no bells and whistles like lip corners pulling up or other minute human movements. Also, no other part of the head or body moves. It’s likely that the app does not use facial tracking technology, and instead responds to the audio coming through the phone. The app does get around the lack of facial tracking technology cleverly by providing you a set of four facial expressions you can easily change to while you speak. You swipe up, down, left, or right on the screen to get your avatar to be neutral, happy, sad, or angry. You can choose from a decent selection of avatars. The art style for each is rather different, too, which is kind of refreshing.
Beyond Kizuna AI… is Us?
If you’re looking to be a virtual girl, try out the above augmented reality apps. If you’re like me and find the grey slippery spaces between being really femme and an anime girl tantalizingly intriguing, also try the apps in this article. Augmented reality is the new frontier, and it’s only going to further change how we think about the digital world and real world, and how we define what’s a virtual girl and a real girl.
I’ll chaotically make another prediction, hopefully more accurate this time, about virtual girls. I predict that in the near future, the steady infiltration of augmented reality technology in our lives will give any person the chance to be a virtual girl, to be a Kizuna AI or Hatsune Miku.