Korea’s virtual idols captivate audiences worldwide

Date May 07, 2024

Virtual idols dominating the charts (Courtesy of VLAST)

Virtual idols dominating the charts (Courtesy of  VLAST)

Artificial intelligence (AI) has become ubiquitous in various aspects of our daily lives, ranging from AI-driven language translation tools to AI-based food analyzers. A significant transformation is taking place in Korea's music industry, particularly in the realm of K-pop, where virtual idols powered by AI are gaining prominence. These virtual idols, which are hyper-realistic non-human avatars, are reshaping the landscape of K-pop, leveraging advancements in mixed reality (MR) technology and the growing fascination with metaverse platforms.


Korea’s first foray into non-human, digitalized musicians stretches back to 1998 with a cyber singer called Adam. High development costs and low visual quality led to a quick shelving of the idea, but the concept of using non-human avatars as music stars never died. Indeed, the gradual expansion of virtual idols in the K-pop space–and an increase in the number of fans who follow these virtual musicians–suggests that virtual idols in their current form are not just a passing fad.


Virtual idols have been making waves in the entertainment industry, and the numbers speak for themselves. Take, for example, ETERNITY, a virtual idol group formed in March 2021. Their music video, released in January 2023, has already amassed a staggering 27 million views in just 11 months. Another group called MAVE also gained significant attention, with over 10 million views on YouTube for their second album "What's My Name." And then there’s PLAVE, a five-member virtual idol group that recently achieved remarkable success by selling 570,000 copies of their second mini-album "ASTERUM." These figures highlight the triumph of virtual idols in the industry.


But not all virtual idol groups are alike. There are two main categories of virtual singers: those made with real humans in special suits and those made entirely from artificial intelligence. Eternity and MAVE fall into the latter category. On the other hand, PLAVE uses technology to superimpose virtual appearances on real people, i.e., former K-pop idols who did not make it big on their own. These artists are involved in composing songs and showcasing their dancing skills.

The winner of the music program, PLAVE (Courtesy of  VLAST)

The winner of the music program, PLAVE (Courtesy of  VLAST)

Virtual idol groups have gained immense popularity not just because of their real-time, lifelike graphics and infectious music, but also due to their ability to interact closely with fans through social media and various platforms. From live broadcasts on YouTube to one-on-one conversations via private messaging services like Bubble, these groups have successfully engaged their respective audiences. Major entertainment companies like YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and SM Entertainment have taken notice of this trend, with SM Entertainment even gearing up for the debut of a virtual idol called Naevis.


And it’s not surprising that major entertainment companies have jumped into the fray: Virtual idols offer a more cost-effective, lower-risk solution for the industry. An industry insider said that the virtual equipment utilized by ISEGYE IDOL, a popular virtual girl group, costs only five to KRW 6 million each. In addition to the lower production costs, virtual idols pose less risk compared to real idols, who may encounter scandals and other damage to their images. Moreover, incorporating idols into content like webtoons and web novels allows companies to explore new revenue streams beyond the music sector.


In fact, virtual idols are gaining attention outside of just their music. Kakao Entertainment recently produced a survival show called GIRL’S RE:VERSE that features 30 girl group idols competing via their virtual avatars. The contestants’ identities are concealed, and fans are encouraged to vote on how well each one performs as a bid to shift focus away from their physical attributes. At the end of the show, the top five will debut as a virtual girl group. The new show has gained a following both at home and abroad.

PLAVE (Courtesy of VLAST)

PLAVE (Courtesy of  VLAST)

Source Indication(Type 1)

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism's "Korea Here & Now" work can be used under the condition of "Public Nuri Type 1 (Source Indication)."