Protocol | China

Why China’s falling in love with virtual idols

They are reliable assets with no political risks. They could also hold the key to the country's metaverse future.

A virtual idol on a desktop.

China's virtual idols have already entered real life so thoroughly and so quickly that it's easy to miss.

Photo: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

On her birthday on Aug. 8, Chinese celebrity Eileen hosted a glitzy live-streaming concert via the video-sharing platform Bilibili. Tens of thousands of her fans tuned into her livestream channel to share her special day. By the end of the 2.5-hour show, Eileen raked in nearly 1.5 million yuan ($230,000) from paying fans, topping Bilibili's virtual streamer daily revenue chart.

By the end of the show, Eileen wasn't tired. Or happy. Or sad. "Eileen" doesn't actually exist; she's a virtual idol, and a member of China's most popular virtual girls' band, A-SOUL. China's virtual idol economy is fast becoming a piping hot sector that tech companies big and small are racing to exploit.

Chinese companies have been developing virtual singers and video streamers for the past decade. But the virtual idol sector is taking off in 2021 because of technological advances, in AR, VR, and AI, as well as the recent slew of human Chinese celebrities who fell abruptly from stardom — due to everything from tax evasion to sexual assault to having opinions out of step with Party ideology. This has made virtual idols, who never make mistakes and have no human failings at all, more appealing and investable.

Big tech is quickly getting in on the action. For example, Beijing-based Yuehua Entertainment manages Eileen's one-year-old band, A-SOUL. And Yuehua is backed by TikTok's parent company ByteDance. In the past few months, the five A-SOUL members have routinely snagged top-earning virtual streamer spots on Bilibili. If ByteDance's endorsement of virtual idols is any indication, China's virtual idols have already entered real life so thoroughly and so quickly that it's easy to miss. At least 10 tech startups that specialize in virtual idol motion capture, image synthesis, AI action processing and image processing technologies have received early rounds of financing up to $5 million since mid-year 2020, according to Chinese tech site 36kr. Tech giants such as Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance have all made investments in developing their own virtual idol IPs or technologies to enrich their existing ecommerce, gaming and short video businesses.

The virtual idol industry is evolving — and growing — fast. The size of China's core virtual idol market reached $540 million in 2020, up 70.3% from 2019, and is expected to reach nearly $1 billion in 2021, according to Chinese market consultancy iiMedia. Analysts anticipate the entire economy driven by virtual idols to rise to $17 billion in 2021 from 2020's $10 billion.

China is a perfect virtual idol incubator. It's home to 400 million anime, comics and game (ACG) fans, known as the "two dimensional space" (二次元). Bilibili, the home base for ACG subculture fans, is naturally the biggest platform for virtual celebrities, currently home to over 10,000 virtual idols. But cutting-edge technologies like AI, AR and VR have enabled virtual idols to become even more real. In the past three years, tech and entertainment companies have developed hyper-realistic digitized 3D celebrities who appeal to a wider audience than ACG fans. The one-year-old, AI-powered Ling, for instance, with the appearance of a stylish young Chinese woman, has already booked Tesla and Vogue as her clients.

Developing and promoting virtual idols can be as costly as managing real stars. For example, it can cost millions of yuan to make a 3D virtual idol. Insiders told Protocol that the profit margin for most tech companies providing virtual idol solutions is thin.

But it's a worthy investment nevertheless. Virtual celebrities can exist anywhere at any time, and they are under total control of the companies they belong to. In theory, they could attend a fashion show in New York while simultaneously appearing in an ad campaign in Beijing. In a political environment where the presence of a given celebrity can be wiped from the internet and real life overnight for speeches or behaviors deemed inappropriate by authorities, virtual idols are investors' safer bets — they are reliable assets without the liabilities. Fans prefer virtuous celebrities as well. A 2020 industry report showed that 63% of the surveyed said they liked virtual idols because they didn't generate negative news.

What truly excites investors and tech providers is the global popularity of the metaverse, which is a set of virtual spaces where residents can live, socialize and communicate through VR and AR technologies. In the metaverse, everyone — famous or not — will be represented through a virtual avatar. And as in the real world, the metaverse will have its own KOLs.

"The popularity of metaverse as a concept will increase the advertisers' acceptance of virtual idols,'' Chen Jian, CEO of Guangzhou-based AR/VR company Dreamland Maker Technology told Protocol. "We are expecting more endorsement opportunities and event sponsorships for idols."

Chen founded Dreamland Maker Technology in 2015. The company forayed into the virtual livestreaming business in 2017, and is now a full virtual idol service provider, covering the tech, commercialization and production aspects of the business. One of the early players in the virtual idol sector, Chen's company achieved profitability in 2019, and the profit margin in 2020 reached 25%, he said. With the metaverse gaining more traction in China, Chen expects that Dreamland Maker Technology's revenue from its consumer business will exceed that of the corporate business in the future.

"The metaverse opens up a lot of new revenue possibilities for virtual idols and for us," Chen said.

Protocol | Workplace

The whiteboard wars: Miro and Figma want to make meetings better

Miro and Figma separately launched features on Tuesday aimed at improving collaboration on their platforms.

Whiteboard rivals Miro and Figma each released collaboration improvements.

Logos: Figma and Miro

We expect a lot from our productivity tools these days. You can't just stroll over to your team members' desks and show them what you're working on anymore. Most of those interactions need to happen online, and it's even better if the work and the communication can happen in one place. Miro and Figma — competitors in the collaborative whiteboard space — understand how critical remote collaboration is, and are both working to up their meeting game.

This week, both platforms announced features aimed at improving the collaboration experience, each vying to be the home base for teams to work and hang out together. Figma announced updates to its multiplayer whiteboard FigJam, and Miro announced a new set of tools that it's calling Miro Smart Meetings. Figma's goal is to make FigJam more customizable and accessible for everyone; Miro wants to be the best place for content-centered, professional meetings. They both want to be the go-to hub for teams looking to get stuff done.

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Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

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Kate Silver

Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Protocol | Workplace

Hybrid work is here to stay. Here’s how to do it better.

We've recovered from the COVID-19 digital collaboration whiplash. Now we must build a more intentional model for hybrid work.

This is a call to managers to understand the mundane or unwanted projects their employees face, and what work excites them.

Photo: Adobe

Ashley Still is Adobe's Senior Vice President of Digital Media – Marketing, Strategy & Global Partnerships.

When COVID-19 hit, we were forced into a fully digital mode of business operation. Overnight, we adopted available remote work tools — even if imperfect, they were the best tools for the job.

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Ashley Still
As Senior Vice President, Digital Media – Marketing, Strategy & Global Partnerships, Ashley Still leads product marketing and business development for Adobe's flagship Creative Cloud and Document Cloud offerings. This includes iconic software brands such as Photoshop, Lightroom, Illustrator, InDesign and Acrobat. Her expanded remit now includes Adobe's strategic partnership work with technology companies globally, including Apple, Microsoft and Google; and driving Adobe's fast-growing mobile app business. Her team is also responsible for the demand generation marketing campaigns that makes Adobe the market-leader, across creative and document productivity segments. Previously she was Vice President and General Manager, Adobe Creative Cloud for Enterprise. Here her team delivered an integrated content creation, collaboration and publishing solution that securely enables brands to create exceptional design and content. Prior to this, Ashley was Senior Director of Product & Marketing for Adobe Primetime, an Internet television platform used by Comcast, Turner, NBC Sports and other global media companies to deliver TV content and dynamic advertising to any Internet device. Under Ashley's leadership, Adobe Primetime won an Emmy Award for the Adobe Pass TV-Everywhere service. Ashley joined Adobe in 2004 following her internship with the company and held several product management positions for Adobe Photoshop. Still earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University and her Masters degree from Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Protocol | Workplace

Meet the productivity app influencers

Within the realm of productivity influencing, there is a somewhat surprising sect: Creators who center their content around a specific productivity app.

People are making content and building courses based off of their favorite productivity apps.

Photos: Courtesy

This is the creators' internet. The rest of us are just living in it. We're accustomed to the scores of comedy TikTokers, beauty YouTubers and lifestyle Instagram influencers gracing our feeds. A significant portion of these creators are productivity gurus, advising their followers on how they organize their lives.

Within the realm of productivity influencing, there's a surprising sect: Creators who center their content around a specific productivity app. They're a powerful part of these apps' ecosystems, drawing users to the platform and offering helpful tips and tricks. Notion in particular has a huge influencer family, with #notion gaining millions of views on TikTok.

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Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Payments Infrastructure

Power Index: Payments Infrastructure

A data-driven ranking of the most powerful players in tech — and the challengers best positioned to disrupt them.

Welcome back to the Protocol Power Index, a ranking of the most powerful companies by tech industry subsector, as well as the companies best positioned to challenge them. This time: payments infrastructure.

The payments stack has been evolving dramatically in the last decade with the rise of ecommerce and new forms of money transfers, and though it's a sector that's been touched by Midas through each of its iterations, there's somehow still space for newcomers to be minted. Payments giants have ceded coveted territory to new market entrants during the process, but they are hardly down for the count.

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Hirsh Chitkara
Hirsh Chitkara (@ChitkaraHirsh) is a researcher at Protocol, based out of New York City. Before joining Protocol, he worked for Business Insider Intelligence, where he wrote about Big Tech, telecoms, workplace privacy, smart cities, and geopolitics. He also worked on the Strategy & Analytics team at the Cleveland Indians.
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