Wednesday, October 7, 2009

One step closer to Rei Toei

A few years ago, the world (or at least the internet) received its first real virtual idol in the form of Hatsune Miku. For those who don't know (it's been hard to miss if you read the internets), Miku is essentially two things -- an anime-style character, and a synthetic voice, both courtesy of Yamaha's Vocaloid software. Neither of these is particularly groundbreaking, but the combination somehow took off, and she's become an internet phenomenon. By dint of the Eliza effect, she's gained a projected personality and an enormous following; if you're curious, search for Hatsune Miku on youtube, and then don't blame me for the amount of time you spend watching. Now Yamaha's taken the next step by making a humanoid robot to go along with the Vocaloid software (surprisingly, it does not have green pigtails). World domination can't be far off.

The concept of a virtual idol has been around for quite a while now; I've traced it back as far as 1994, which I believe was the release year for both William Gibson's novel Idoru and the anime Macross Plus. Both stories center around AI singers who become international pop stars. This seems to have been pegged as a uniquely Japanese phenomenon; Gibson's Rei Toei is Japanese (idoru is roughly the Japanese word for idol) and of course Macross was written and produced in Japan. This could be partially a function of the era in which they were created -- in 1994, Japan was the leader in pretty much every area of technology -- but I think there's something more to it than that, as evinced by the fact that the first real virtual idol turned out to be Japanese after all. In my opinion, it might have something to do with the Japanese media's mastery of the art of characterization, about which more below. Japanese technology also has an unparalleled focus on the human element -- the focus is often less on the capabilities of a device (speech synthesis has been around for ages) than the interface and the way it's presented to the user. (I wrote a speech on this for class a couple years ago; if I can find it, maybe I'll post it and/or a translation.)

It's interesting to note that both Rei Toei and Sharon Apple 1) had AI-generated personalities, and 2) interacted with the "physical" world via hologram, whereas neither of these are true of Miku. These traits reflect the state of the art at the time -- in 1994, the internet had yet to really take off as a medium for media distribution, and Turing-test AI seemed not too far off. These days, AI as a field has basically collapsed (see earlier rants), and holograms are a dreadfully inefficient way to make a digital entity visible. Those two traits are both infeasible and, as Miku demonstrated, unnecessary. In particular, thanks to the effect first publicized by the infamous "ELIZA" psychologist program, there's no need for AI to create a personality for a character. Any program that displays even remotely humanoid traits will be assigned a personality by the people who interact with it. Her appearance and her voice are easily sufficient for people to decide that Miku is naive, energetic, a little clumsy, and so on, and countless other traits are ascribed to her by her legions of fans. This isn't all the Eliza effect, though; I think some thanks is also due to the incredible power of characterization that the anime style possesses, by which the smallest details of appearance encode a character's personality. (Look at me, tying all my previous posts together!)

I'm most decidedly not a futurist, so I'm not going to speculate about what comes next, though I will be absolutely amazed if a Miku robot doesn't follow close on the heels of this one. Are virtual idols the future of pop music? Well, someone still has to write the songs, but that's true for human idols as well. In fact, Miku has an advantage on that count, because her compositions are crowd-sourced: anyone with the software can write songs for her (and thousands have). The voices still need work, but Miku and her comrades are incredibly popular despite (because of?) the fact that they're obviously synthetic. Humanoid robots have largely fallen by the wayside everywhere except Japan, probably because they're not really useful for anything, but we may yet be surprised by how much difference it makes to have a physical object that looks like us. At any rate, it may be about time for me to sign up for the waiting list for tickets to the next Hatsune Miku or Rei Toei concert (I think I'll give Sharon Apple's a miss). I'll see you there!


  1. But at Sharon Apple's concerts they use pheremone technology or something like that - it sounds totally crazy! Plus, does Rei Toei ever take control of a city-sized space fortress that can turn into a giant mecha? I DON'T THINK SO.

    Oh yeah, and interesting post, and all that.

  2. At the risk of spoiling, I will say that Rei Toei does something of at least comparable scale and possibly greater awesomeness in All Tomorrow's Parties. But I'd avoid Sharon Apple's concerts more for fear of getting killed than because her music's worse (that's a completely separate argument, especially since Sharon has the advantage of actually having music).