Experiencing virtual idol technology with the iMetaStar Virtual Avatar creation system.
Let’s say you have a range of lifestyle products to promote. Or perhaps a restaurant brand. Or maybe a brand-new series of IT accessories.
How do you go about it? Well, the standard go-to nowadays would be a social media campaign—you could do it yourself or hire an agency. Alternatively, if there’s synergy foreseeable, you could collaborate with an influencer or celebrity spokesperson.
Whichever method you opt for, commercial success is achievable, if you keep at it and maintain a watchful eye on everything. Here’s the ugly truth, though. Even if you hawk over your project every hour of the day, so many things can still go wrong because you’re working with multiple external parties.
The agency you hired closes down or has a staff overhaul. The staff you delegated the task to resigned and went to work for your competitor.
Heavens! The spokesperson you contracted is embroiled in a sex scandal!!!
When such disasters strike, there’s really little remedy apart from doing your best to revive/rescue the campaign. Here’s another sad truth. Your brand will eventually recover but it’s going to take time and hard work. Occasionally, the mess might even be so awful, you would be tempted to abandon everything altogether.
Virtual Idols—Your Company’s Realistic and Safe Spokesperson
Thankfully, “Metaverse” technology offers companies a way to avoid the abovementioned pitfalls, in the form of virtual idols. Now, I’m using terminologies with much hype here, but what I’m referring to is very simply the creation of animated virtual personalities, or avatars, which could then be used to produce product advertisements, talk shows, technical walkthroughs, video features, etc.
Avatars who could be your company’s permanent spokesperson too. Permanent, as in they will never resign or be poached. Or get all tangled up in some unbecoming controversy. Or resist any prudent change in image.
The technology to create such digital representatives/staff has actually existed for quite a while too, albeit in (greatly) imperfect form. More than 10 years ago, the free-to-use Daz3D software suite already enables users to animate high-res customised 3D figures for short video clips. On the net, one can also easily find platforms that provide animated avatars or cartoons, with dialogue based on text-to-speech input.
But as highlighted, these platforms and software are vastly limited. It takes hours to create and animate a Daz3D scene; followed by an even longer time to render. If you’ve ever tried any “talking heads” avatar creation software, well, I think you know what I mean when I say they are cute at first glance, but increasingly creepy and unnatural with extended use.
In comparison, a system like STEPVR’s iMetaStar virtual avatar creator stands way apart from older tech by using motion capture (MoCap) instead of automated or frame-by-frame animation. Created by the Chinese developer to be the world’s first affordable “one-stop Avatar-as-a-Service solution,” iMetaStar utilises a 15-point MoCap system to capture and emulate human action with a pre-selected avatar. Dialogue can be simultaneously recorded too and being a digital system, the background, of course, could also be switched to perfect environments.
In other words, a properly set up iMetaStar enables you to instantly create 3D animations that are as natural and attractive as it gets. Because everything is based on actual human movements.
It’s very “Hollywood.” Actually, it is indeed Hollywood-standard SFX. By the way, iMetaStar works best in a dedicated green room. The entire system is also controlled by the iMetaStar Virtual Human Studio Software, which is operated on one single console. (More on technical requirements in the next section)
Needless to say, such a setup doesn’t completely come cheap too. STEPVR cites an approximate cost of USD 20,000/- for hardware, software, set up, and one year of tech support. This five-figure price tag is not one that smaller companies or independent marketers/content creators would likely consider or be able to afford. That said, the sum is still nowhere near sky-high as one would expect. Besides, the only other things needed are devoted space and a beefier computer system.
I’ll go ahead and say it. I think such a virtual avatar creation system could be a worthwhile consideration for companies with larger marketing budgets and a keenness to harness technology. The solution is especially attractive to companies that would benefit from a high-tech, futuristic image.
As with all new tech, proper setup and a learning curve precede the smooth operation of the system. But once done, it’s like having your own production studio in the company. One “helmed” by a personality closest to the perfect spokesperson.
iMetaStar Try Out—Transforming Into Bumblebee
In a nutshell, I briefly experimented with iMetaStar last week at STEPVR’s green room at PIXEL. The following are my observations.
- My session took place in a properly done-up green room, although I was told by STEPVR’s representative that a large-enough green screen would suffice. I see no reason to doubt the claim. However, I would say a sizable workplace is still required. One that’s large enough to neatly park a workstation and still has enough space to freely move in. With enough room height to optimally place the motion-capturing light towers too. A room of at least 3 x 3 x 2.4 m height is recommended.
- I needed help wearing the 15-point MoCap suit. (Or should I say, girdle) It’s not frustratingly complicated, though, and once I had an inkling of how it straps on, I could remove it myself. Being wireless, it’s also not restrictive at all—I could jump, squat, dance, etc. The heaviest part of the suit is a power pack that was stored in the back of my jeans.
- My goodness, calibration was quick! I was told to strike a t-pose, hold my hands before me, and it was done. My PS4 VR headset took at least five times longer to calibrate when I first bought it.
- Prepping my avatar was quick too. iMetaStar had a selection for me to choose from.* Once I’d picked mine, the scene was changed and everything was ready to go.
- One word: Responsive. Whatever I did while in the MoCap suit was immediately captured and reproduced on screen by dear old Bumblebee, i.e., my chosen avatar. There was no lag that my naked eyes could perceive. No clunkiness of movement in any way too. Most impressively, even minute actions like the wriggling of fingers were accurately and realistically captured.
- The system was able to provide a live-cam feed—in other words, the real me beside my avatar. This provides a lot of possibilities. For example, you could have a live human chatting with a virtual idol.
During my conversations with STEPVR reps, I was also told the following:
- Being a MoCap, green-screen system and all, physical objects can’t be “brought into” the scene. In other words, if you’re promotion a physical product, the product wouldn’t be captured on screen—you have to create a digital 3D model of the product and import it. (STEPVR can provide this service at an additional cost; price depending on complexity) The easiest workaround for this is to simply show a picture as part of the scene.
- Audio could be recorded but at the moment, there are no audio enhancement functions. iMetaStar is considering incorporating such functions in future versions, though.
- Everything is controlled by one PC system and this needs to be relatively beefy—an i7 system with an Nvidia 3080 graphic accelerator card is strongly recommended.
To sum up, my try-out was amazingly fun and inspirational. While I goofed around as Bumblebee, I kept imagining all the shorts and movies I could create if I have a full day with iMetaStar.
Enjoyable as my time with it was, though, I am aware everything went well because my session was hosted using a properly set up system. In a properly done-up green room too, with the light towers already installed at optimum spots, etc.
I thus can’t review or comment on how easy/tedious it is to prepare the stage, so to speak. But since there’s not much hardware to begin with, and with STEPVR providing installation as part of their package, I assume everything is overall manageable and easy.
* iMetaStar comes with several standard avatars. Additional ones could also be paid for monthly.
Virtual Idols: A Next-Gen Marketing Solution and Cash Cow?
In China, virtual idols are increasingly embraced as a next-gen marketing solution, one that offers a way to eschew the aforementioned controversies as well as various socio-political concerns.
Such idols have, in turn, turned out to be incredibly profitable on their own too. The success of Ayayi, one of China’s most popular AI/virtual influencers, is the stuff of legends. China’s iiMedia Group estimated the Chinese virtual idol market to be worth a whopping $16bn in 2021.
Coming back to Singapore, virtual avatars and idols are not unheard of but for the moment, they seemed largely restricted to the entertainment industry and vTubers (“Faceless” Youtube content creators who represent themselves with digital personas). Many local business owners will presumably be hesitant about the worth of virtual spokespersons too. Such reservation is not unwarranted. After all, there’s no noteworthy local success case. It’s also tough to know for sure which markets or demographics would be unwelcoming to virtual personas.
But herein perhaps lie the commercial potential, simply because there is an open field out there. Any economist worth his/her salt will tell you that any company able to enter the market with the right toolset and at the right cost stands a good chance at championship.
The business potential is also not necessarily limited to the marketing or entertainment industries. At an initial cost of USD 20 thousand, even a more affordable solution like iMetaStar is not within reach of many content creators and entertainers, especially newer ones. But what if there’s a devoted facility for virtual idol creation and management?
VR cafes and escape rooms are already all over town. Would a pay-by-hour facility with fully set up green rooms be popular with content creators established and new?
Go in, pay, spend two hours being someone else and recording all that into digital files that you can bring home in a thumb drive …
I’m willing to bet that such a facility will be a hit. Hey, if there’s one, I will definitely be spending hours there each week.
More info about iMetaStar: https://www.stepvr.io/imetastar