SEOUL (Reuters) – Less than two months ago, the debut music video for South Korean female quartet MAVE: went viral, racking up nearly 20 million views on YouTube and paving the way for potential global success.
At first glance, MAVE: looks like any other idolized K-pop group – except they only exist virtually. Its four members – SIU, ZENA, TYRA and MARTY – live in the metaverse, their songs, dances, interviews and even their hairstyles created by web designers and artificial intelligence.
“When I first saw Mave, it was a bit confusing whether they were humans or virtual characters,” said Han Su-min, a 19-year-old from Seoul. “Because I often use metaverse platforms with my friends, I feel like I could become their fan.”
The group’s near-human avatars provide a first glimpse of how the metaverse is likely to evolve as South Korea’s entertainment and tech industries hook up with nascent technology.
It also represents a serious push by tech giant Kakao Corp to become a dominant force in entertainment. In addition to backing MAVE:, Kakao launched a 1.25 trillion won ($960 million) takeover bid last week to buy South Korean K-pop pioneer SM Entertainment.
SM is home to popular K-pop groups such as Girls’ Generation, HOT, EXO, Red Velvet, Super Junior, SHINee, NCT Dream, and Aespa.
Kakao declined to comment on how he would balance the demands of managing real and virtual bands.
The company’s bet on the metaverse goes against a global trend. Big tech companies, from Facebook parent company Meta Platforms Inc to China’s Tencent Holdings, are now limiting their spending in virtual worlds to ride out the economic downturn.
Kakao said earlier that he invested 12 billion won in Metaverse Entertainment, a subsidiary he formed with gaming company Netmarble Corp to create MAVE:.
But the company declined to make any revenue forecasts for the business.
MAVE: is an “ongoing” project to explore new business opportunities and find ways around technological challenges, said Chu Ji-yeon, who heads Metaverse Entertainment.
The concept is not new to South Korea. In 1998, virtual singer Adam was launched, and two decades later K-pop girl group K/DA, inspired by characters from the video game League of Legends, also debuted. Neither of them took off.
But South Korean technology has come a long way since then in creating virtual characters. MAVE: Looks more natural thanks to new tools and artificial intelligence the developers have used to create facial expressions and small details like streaks in hair, viewers say.
Using an AI voice generator, its members can speak four languages – Korean, English, French and Bahasa. But they cannot respond to prompts and must rely on scripts prepared by humans.
The band’s vocals heard in the lead single “Pandora” and the choreography in the music video were created by human performers and processed through real-time motion capture and 3D rendering technologies.
Experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the growth of these virtual characters, as many K-pop companies have turned to online content to satiate fans at home.
“Fans have become more accustomed to consuming content and communicating with their idol groups without face-to-face for almost three years,” said Lee Jong-im, a pop culture critic who teaches at the University. National Seoul. “They seem to be more accepting of the concept that virtual and real-life idol groups can fit in.”
While virtual bands like MAVE: grab headlines for their novelty, questions remain as to whether they can match the interaction between conventional popular bands and their legions of fans.
“Virtual idols will move exactly as they are made. And without any unpredictability, they will become something akin to video technology, not K-pop,” said Lee Gyu-tag, associate professor of cultural studies at George Mason University of Korea.
Still, the creators of MAVE: and entertainment industry officials are optimistic about its potential.
“With so many comments received from all over the world, I realized that viewers want something new and are quite open-minded,” said Roh Shi-yong, chief producer of a weekly music show. on local TV channel MBC. who streamed the MAVE performance: twice.
“The age of the metaverse is coming.”
(Reporting by Hyunsu Yim; Additional reporting by Minwoo Park, Daewoung Kim and Ju-Min Park; Editing by Miyoung Kim and Raju Gopalakrishnan)
Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.