Virtual idol: Is it hype or future of K-pop industry?

February 24, 2023

The Korean music industry has expanded its foray into the global market with well-trained idols and their devoted fans, and now it is venturing into the virtual space with a new breed of idols.

Non-humans, hyper-real avatars made with artificial intelligence (AI) have growingly taken the stage in the Korean music scene in recent years in line with evolving mixed reality technology and rising interest in metaverse platforms.

Korea’s first cyber singer Adam dates back to 1998, but the fad was short lived due to low visual quality and high development costs.

Following the rise and fall of some virtual singers, new projects are finally getting noticed by more people with hyperrealistic characters and a wider selection of quality content.

The trend is expected to gain further momentum as entertainment agencies and tech companies are set to debut new virtual idols and combine them across genres, including music, webtoons, game and fashion.

Last month, Metaverse Entertainment, a joint venture between game company Netmarble and Kakao Entertainment, unveiled its first virtual girl group project, MAVE: (Make New Wave).

MAVE:, Metaverse Entertainment's virtual girl group, is seen in this photo provided by gaming company Netmarble. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)
MAVE:, Metaverse Entertainment’s virtual girl group, is seen in this photo provided by gaming company Netmarble. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Since the release of its debut album on Jan. 25, the music video for its title song “Pandora” has garnered over 15 million views on YouTube. The group performed at MBC’s music program last week and is already spawning dance challenges on social media platforms, including TikTok.

To add to their narratives, Kakao Entertainment, a subsidiary under tech giant Kakao, released the group-themed webtoon series “MAVE: Yet Another World” this week.

Metaverse Entertainment said MAVE: stands out from other K-pop idols as it is open to infinite possibilities.

“MAVE: will meet global fans in various ways with their own stories and appearances, sometimes on stage, sometimes in games and webtoons, and sometimes in the metaverse world,” Siu, a member of MAVE, was quoted as saying in a press release.

Kakao Entertainment is also carving out a niche with its virtual survival show “GIRL’S RE:VERSE” to unlock VR technology’s commercial potential in the entertainment business.

In the show premiered on Jan. 2, 30 girl group members compete with each other in a virtual world called “W” to seize a chance to debut a new virtual girl group. The list of five members will be announced next month.

The program uses VR motion capture technology to capture their physical movements and facial expressions. In a cubicle room, contestants wear VR headsets and hold a set of wireless controllers to sing, dance and complete quests together in the virtual world.

The real-life idols behind the avatars are not in their usual polite mode: the girls crack jokes and get harsh on their competitors.

The experimental show has created buzz by making fans guess who is behind the avatars.

“This is honestly a great way for talented singers to be recognized and debuted without worrying about being judged for their looks by companies and the public! I’d advocate for more if it means more beautiful voices on the scene,” a fan posted on YouTube.

Buoyed by its early success, Kakao Entertainment earlier this month released a new webtoon series inspired by their characters, called “GIRL’s RE:VERSE behind.”

A webtoon based on characters of virtual survival show "GIRL's RE:VERSE" is seen in this photo provided by Kakao Entertainment. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)
A webtoon based on characters of virtual survival show “GIRL’s RE:VERSE” is seen in this photo provided by Kakao Entertainment. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

For the K-pop powerhouses that operate boot camp-like training systems for young idols, the advantages are clear. Virtual idols don’t age, are free from scandals and do whatever companies tell them to do.

But questions remain. Will they be able to build a devoted fanbase and tap into the mainstream market? Or is it going to be another fad when the feeling of novelty is gone?

The key may lie in whether they can continue to draw an engaged fan base with their own narratives, which was behind the global success of K-pop juggernaut BTS.

“MAVE:’s visuals are stunning and its songs are great,” Lee Sang-eun, an avid K-pop fan, said. “It’s cool, but I’m not sure whether the flawless characters can be the future of K-pop. Fans love imperfect, flawed artists who sometimes go unpredictable and do crazy things.”