By Melissa Francis
Virtual personalities in Japan have been taking off as we’re seeing the likes of so-called ‘CGI Influencers’ such as Imma and Liam Nikuro raking in significant profits for the companies that created them. Notable digital agencies outside of Japan include Brud (creator of LA-based robot Lil Miquela and Blawko) and Virtual Influencer Agency (VIA). This is especially the case during the COVID-19 pandemic as it completely erases the need for models to be physically present at a given location.
Notable virtual personalities in Japan
Rinna / Saya
Rinna first came onto the scene in 2015. She is an AI-powered personality developed by Microsoft. The idea was to artificially emulate the thoughts and feelings of a regular Japanese schoolgirl. She ‘graduated’ in 2019 and has since racked up more than 8 million viewers/followers across all social platforms. Twitter followers revelled in the fact that they could interact with Rinna in much the same way as another human and get a response. Rinna’s official website showcases the multi-faceted nature of her developments over time.
Following the adoption of the empathy chat model (developed by Microsoft) in 2018 which emulates natural human conversation, she has been involved with; singing, painting, sending feedback, telling fortunes, created a YouTube channel. Recently, there was a world-first video in which an AI, in this case Rinna, interacted with model and voice actress Riho Iida.
Another example of a virtual personality is the 3DCG high school girl Saya (below), created by husband and wife duo TELYUKA (Teruyuki and Yuka Ishikawa). She is a virtual model designed to mimic human emotions accurately and was introduced at SXSW in 2018.
Imma is a completely digital model, with striking pink hair and a keen fashion sense. She was created by Japanese CG company Cafegroup under their ModelingCafe brand for Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo. The company have primarily been involved in creating CG models for popular anime and movie franchises, including The Promised Neverland and Neo Evangelion the Movie, but started out by developing Imma.
And she is incredibly popular, having accrued more than 330k followers on her Instagram account. She can be seen hanging out with her friend Manon, a French-Japanese J-pop singer who has gained popularity for her unique style. Imma has even participated in interviews, like this one with Hyperbae.
IKEA Japan promoted the launch of their new Harajuku store by setting up a digital installation featuring Imma going about her everyday life. This offered passers-by an immersive experience and different perspective—seeing IKEA furniture and goods being utilised in situ, without actually encroaching on anyone’s privacy at all. This also worked well considering the fact that the pandemic had been keeping Japanese consumers at home for so much of 2020 during the lead-up to this campaign.
Imma also has substantial cross-border appeal, as was exemplified by her appearance in a Magnum Matcha campaign in China in August 2020.
Beginning his career in 2019, Liam Nikuro is a Japanese-American virtual personality developed by 1SEC. Like Imma, has a broad international appeal. He has teamed up with NBA, collaborating with Washington Wizards basketball player Rui Hachimura (who also happens to also be mixed race). Nikuro has been presented as a music producer, model, and is passionate about the world of sports. Not only is he a creative, he has been fighting back against the rise in Asian hate crimes as well as backing the Black Lives Matter campaign. He is ‘based’ between LA and Tokyo and comes across as laid-back, athletic, stylish, and perhaps most importantly…approachable.
Liam Nikuro’s agency 1SEC has also overseen the development of virtual influencers for brands like SUNTORY, featuring a so-called ‘virtual human employee’, Mizuki Yamatori, who posts attempts to create gourmet meals on his Instagram. He has also collaborated with other influencers, such as actress Kana Hanazawa – as can be seen below promoting SUNTORY’s Premium Malts beer.
Yamatori is the company’s official follow-up to their virtual YouTuber called ‘SUNTORY Nomu’, an original character who sings while promoting various products across SUNTORY’s drinks range. Compared with the previously mentioned virtual personalities in Japan, Yamatori appears slightly more CG than his counterparts.
Huge Future Opportunities for Virtual Personalities in Japan
Needless to say, the benefits of virtual personalities are limitless, whether in the form of virtual YouTubers (still driven by real people) like Kizuna Ai and Kaguya Luna, or completely stand-alone CGI Influencers like Imma and Liam Nikuro. In terms of cost, this should be less when compared with hiring real celebrities to endorse a product. But then again, design studios will take management fees in much the same way as traditional talent agencies do. Still, the future looks bright for artificially developed virtual personalities in Japan, so watch this space!
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