Arts and Entertainment

Virtual K-pop Idols: K-pop’s New Connection to Global Audiences?

Virtual K-pop idols give rise to various social concerns while proposing new ways to connect with fans around the world. I

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In recent years, K-pop has boomed in popularity around the globe, with top groups such as BTS and Blackpink charting on the Billboard Top 100 and touring internationally. K-pop’s characteristic modernity and innovative spirit have encouraged extensive experimentation in the genre, including virtual K-pop groups. Virtual K-pop groups utilize avatars or technology to create and/or enhance their idols. For instance, the groups aespa, Plave, MAVE:, and K/DA utilize AI, machine learning, face swap, deepfake, full 3-D production technology, and motion capture to create their idols. There are a variety of virtual K-pop acts; aespa is made up of  real members that have virtual counterparts, while Plave, MAVE:, and K/DA consist of entirely virtual members, completely fictional artists who only exist in the digital realm.

Idols are produced by major entertainment companies such as Kakao and SM Entertainment, who are behind the groups MAVE: and aespa, respectively. To bring these idols to life, companies utilize motion capture to process human movements and 3D rendering to create choreography. Deepfake and face swap (technologies that act similarly to a face filter) are used to create the idols’ faces, while AI produces their voices, as seen with Zae-in from the group ETERNITY.

The primary allure of virtual K-pop groups is that these digitized idols are not limited to human capabilities and thus can appeal to and interact with a wider audience. Using AI, virtual idols can speak various languages beyond the scope of what a typical person could learn. Since virtual idols can speak multiple languages, they can interact with a worldwide audience: as of 2022, there were 178 million Hallyu or “Korean Wave” fans who hail from a vast range of countries with different languages. As the accessibility of virtual idols increases through virtual reality and phone apps, they will be able to perform anywhere and be understood by anyone. 

When comparing the skills of virtual and real-life idols, virtual ones come out on top due to their multilingualism, which allows them to appeal to a more cosmopolitan audience. Comparing the two in this way, however, cheapens the effort of real-life idols: years of rigorous training and stress endured to perfect the required skills of stardom—singing, dancing, and interacting with fans. As a result, non-human virtual idols could encourage the dehumanization of real-life idols by implying their personas, products of years of hard work, are easily replaceable and commodifiable. In the virtual idol industry, an idol’s face can be easily replicated and manipulated to create what will be most appealing to the masses. When making the faces for virtual idol group ETERNITY, Pulse9, their creator company, made the idols’ faces catered directly to fan tastes: “cute, sexy, innocent, and intelligent.”

Lookism permeates the K-pop industry, with the “most attractive” idols being labeled “it girls/boys” and the “least attractive” being referred to as “visual holes.” Having a virtual avatar could remove the pressure on real-life idols to conform to the nearly unattainable Korean beauty standards of having large eyes, a small nose, and a V-shaped jawline through deepfake and face swap technology that  “perfects” virtual idols and makes them “more desirable.” It is important to note, though, that creating such idols will still incessantly promote these beauty standards toward mainstream audiences, even if real idols no longer bear that burden.

Virtual idols can also promote unhealthy fan-idol relationships, as advancements in AI could eventually allow fans to interact with and form relationships with virtual idols. Though the idea is similar to parasocial relationships, in which one party dedicates unreciprocated time and interest to a celebrity, it differs in the fact that the unaware receiver is not even a person. Some K-pop fans may aspire to form personal relationships with their idols, something interacting with virtual idols will allow them to do, even if they are not real people. This can be especially unhealthy if the virtual idol is the avatar of a real-life idol, as this false sense of a genuine relationship can carry over to the avatar’s real-world counterpart.

Virtual K-pop idols serve as undeniable evidence of South Korea’s thriving technology industry, which is taking on an increasing interest in the metaverse, or “shared virtual space.” The South Korean government has invested over 170 million dollars to support the development of a “metaverse alliance.”  Though this investment is not directly related to virtual K-pop idols, it shows that the drive toward innovative technology is not limited to entertainment companies. In a rapidly expanding digital landscape, the use of virtual technology to promote K-pop could increase the globalization of Korean entertainment and add to the soft power of the country—the ability to influence through attraction and culture. In South Korea’s case, this would be through their entertainment and technology industries. By combining two of their largest industries, the success of virtual K-pop could increase Korea’s global presence by creating a more favorable image of the country.

Virtual idols reinforce some of the K-pop industry's negative aspects, including restrictive beauty standards and unhealthy fan-idol relationships. Despite virtual idols’ ability to increase the cultural influence of South Korea through global appeal, it should be noted that as it is, K-pop is already booming in worldwide popularity. Hence, the excessive growth of virtual idols would be an unnecessary detriment to both fans and real-life idols alike.