If you haven’t heard of “virtual YouTubers” or VTubers, you’re not alone: the recent Japanese trend turns human actors into cartoony virtual characters for YouTube videos. Now Japanese gaming and media company Gree is leveraging VR hardware and IKinema software to recruit people who might become YouTube’s next big personalities.
Cartoony characters have been popular in Japanese comics and animated videos for generations, appearing as frequently in Japan’s public settings as Mickey Mouse does at American Disney parks. Sometimes known as “idols,” the characters often remain popular with kids and adults for decades. So for some Japanese YouTubers, appearing in videos as an “idol” is more fun than doing so in one’s own skin — a trend that could easily take off outside of Japan, as well.
Gree and IKinema are trying to ease the process of transforming into a virtual YouTube character. Using IKinema’s Orion capturing and LiveAction retargeting software, a Gree-sponsored actor dons an HTC Vive headset in front of motion-capturing cameras, letting the software translate their head and body movements into motions for a cartoony 3D avatar.
Current 3D avatars can use simple or complex character models, but their animations are limited by the use of basic game controllers, trackpads, mice, and keyboards. By comparison, the motion capture tools easily make animations smooth and lifelike. IKinema says its software is precise enough that “human and VTube idol movements are perfectly synced,” even though there’s no need to wear motion capture dots or a full capture suit.
“The VTuber trend is increasing at an astonishing rate,” said IKinema CEO Alexandre Pechev, “and we’re proud IKinema will expedite its development and growth. IKinema’s ongoing vision to democratise quality motion capture for the masses has been our core message and by partnering the cutting-edge Orion and LiveAction technologies, they have become central tools to shape and evolve the future development of the virtual human.”
Gree has developed a new studio in Ropponji, Tokyo specifically to discover, employ, and promote new VTuber talent, hunting for dynamic and/or popular people to expand in the virtual YouTubing space. The partnership is said to enable actors’ personalities and characters to shine through in the motion capture data, enabling “the audience to converse and interact with their favorite idol[s] in a more believable and convincing way.”
Prior to now, IKinema’s tools have been used by numerous game companies, including Bethesda, Capcom, EA, Epic, Infinity Ward, Microsoft, NCSoft, Square Enix, Ubisoft, and Valve. Outside of Japan, the adoption by Gree for virtual YouTubers could foreshadow a day when live Twitch broadcasts are hosted by players appearing as Final Fantasy, Fortnite, or Halo characters, rather than as themselves.