#911: VTubers & Bridging Japan with France with Akihiko Shirai

Akihiko Shirai has been doing research and development in VR live entertainment since 1995, and he’s been a key liaison between the XR communities in Japan and France going back to 2004. Since June 2018 he’s been researching vTuber (Virtual YouTuber, virtual persona, virtual artist) workflows and pipelines as the VR Studio Lab Director at GREE.

I had a chance to talk with Shirai at Laval Virtual 2019 about his journey into VR, his connection to Laval Virtual, as well as some of the work that he’s doing with VTubers and how the Japanese culture seems to be more comfortable embodying virtual representations. Here are the slides from his Laval Virtual 2020 talk on “” (with lots of links in the speaker notes.) The phenomena of vTuber streamers has been a lot more popular in Japan, but I suspect that as we move more into augmented and virtual reality environments, then more and more people are going to start using virtual representations of themselves. Shirai has a lot of deep insights into the topic that we start to discuss in this interview, but he goes into much more details in slides and talk linked below.


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Music: Fatality


Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So continuing on my little series from Laval Virtual 2019, this interview is with Akihiko Shirai. He's from Japan, who was a professor there, and 2004 started to bring students over to Laval, France, and to have this exchange between japan and france and so i have a chance to sit down and talk to him just about his journey into virtual reality and you know a big thing that he goes looking at is the virtual tubers the v tubers so having virtual representations of yourself into these virtual worlds and just talking a bit about the differences in Japanese culture and some of the focuses that they've had in terms of either robotics or virtual representations and virtual reality and trying to flesh out the market of virtuality of exchange and goods within VR. So that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Akihiko happened on Friday, March 22nd, 2019 at the Laval Virtual Conference in Laval, France. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:21.390] Akihiko Shirai: I'm Aki Kusirai, PhD, and the director of Glee VR Studio, Japan.

[00:01:27.317] Kent Bye: And what do you do in virtual or augmented reality?

[00:01:30.160] Akihiko Shirai: It's a long time I have worked for entertainment virtual reality since 1995. So my first project is a real-time motion capture, 400 FPS, by myself, and DirectX. And I had worked in a video game company, and middleware, real-time graphics, it's named RenderWare. I had worked on the PlayStation 2 generation, but I had fatigue. I worked for the graphics. Graphics became better and better, but the gameplay is still the same. Then I really decided to change the future. Then I got a PhD for VR entertainment.

[00:02:12.003] Kent Bye: And so what's your connection to Laval in France, here in Laval Virtual?

[00:02:16.485] Akihiko Shirai: So that's a good question. So in 2004, I had contributed virtual reality competition, student competition in Japan. And now it's international competition of virtual reality, IVRC.net. And I was voluntary work for them. And very lucky case, I had met a French guy who is working for the competition. So competition and competition, academic society linked with student innovations, then I have get involved to become a big bridge, Japan and France.

[00:02:52.517] Kent Bye: And so it seems like that, yeah, you have a lot of students and people from Japan who are working in virtual reality that are coming here to Laval Virtual. And we just had a little bit of a reception here at a secret party after the end of Laval Virtual. What is happening here? Maybe talk a bit about this connection between Japan and Laval.

[00:03:11.465] Akihiko Shirai: Yes, that's also good. So to find the motivation of a student, it is not only inside of virtual reality. They also have dreams. Most of the students who are working in technology, they love Japanese culture, like manga, TV animation, games. And the dream, I'm asking, so the dream is going to Japan. Okay, let's do realize it. And for Japanese, what is your dream? I'd like to go to France to watch Mont Saint-Michel, because Miyazaki Film has a merch for France. Okay, let's go do it. So, exchange is realized. So, IVRC Japan and Lavra Virtua has a contract, long-term contract, for exchange best project for each other. Then we take the charge for that. So Laval Virtual pay for the trip, and IVRC pay for the trip. Then students can exchange with their project.

[00:04:08.730] Kent Bye: Yeah, so there's a bit of a student exchange where Japanese students can come here to France at Laval Virtual and show off some of the projects that they're working on. And it seems like there's a lot of robotics, a lot of more external embodiment of technology. So what is it about Japanese culture that is really trying to push forward robotics and the robotic technology with VR?

[00:04:29.116] Akihiko Shirai: That's a very good question. So for Japanese, everything is done. For Japanese, everything exists. So there is nothing else if something is realized. So this is too much normal for them. For research, they are seeking what is an impossible thing. Then sci-fi, science fiction, or robotics in the anime, this is sort of the ideal thing, homage, and then realize into virtual. Actually, this is in physical. So this is why Japanese researchers, Japanese students realize a very crazy thing, but it is very difficult to find the value in our country because it's too much domestic. Then they are testing in America, they are testing in Europe, then someone say yes for that, then it can recognize their values.

[00:05:20.427] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I'm curious if you could tell me a bit more about some of the applications that you were showing me. It looked like it was a bit of virtual embodiment of these different characters, the people doing these live streams and super chats. And what is happening with this app that you're creating? And what is happening with this level of virtual embodiment that you're exploring?

[00:05:37.471] Akihiko Shirai: So today, this year is Lover Virtual for me. This is a very important year for me because I'm feeling at the end of VR 3.0 and the beginning of 4.0. What is the difference of 3 and 4? So that is a network, not only the physical network, but also social network. So engagement and commerce. So for example, here is a virtual market, but here is very few people working. That makes a market. So the network means a human network or human virtual. So that means money, beginning of money. For example, here is a fish, pork. Let's exchange fish and pork. So that is a reliable person who have different values. So Japan and France have such values. And also, we can believe something new, then we can exchange something. But it's still direct communication. For the next gen of virtual reality, we should have such as virtue, like money. So sometimes someone say Bitcoin, blockchain, but this is not true. So something true like character-driven business, character merchandise business, like IP, like manga, anime, games, from Tokyo, from Japan, that is sort of virtue for us. For example, our company GREE is working for the Avatar Society since 15 years ago. So, for example, here is a ribbon for the girls' hair. So, here is a red ribbon, here is a green ribbon, here is a pink ribbon. So, this is just the difference of RGB value for the engineers, but it just takes 50 cents that the girls who want to wear the pink thing, so that can make the value. So that is a new value from Zero. But in VR community, here is a very big part. One side working for the very physical thing, like industrial thing, like very concrete industries. And one side they are working in virtual of virtual, like a VR chat guy who have organized the VR market, virtual market. to wear the new costume, to wear the new gadget, to use a new script. So this is actual or virtual market existing.

[00:07:54.066] Kent Bye: So you're creating a virtual market, but also creating an opportunity for people to embody these different virtual characters. And so what's happening with that? What can someone do as they're puppeteering one of these virtual avatars? And how does that change their behavior versus just showing a live stream of their face and doing more of a YouTube type of depiction or Twitch stream, which is talking with the users? What's different or changing when they're in an avatar?

[00:08:19.477] Akihiko Shirai: That's a very interesting question because for European or American people doesn't hesitate to show their face on stage, on live stream. But for the Asian culture, they are hesitating. So we need avatars to hide the real properties. And also, I was a professor in university. I played video game very well. But if I got win, but if I show my face, someone say very bad thing. So the concrete thing makes virtuality. Then let's say virtualize everyone. Don't limit for the animatic character, but also the realistic character, but don't limit for the too much realistic character, because magnetic character has a characteristic and it's close to the emotions. Then our society can build a new virtual for the next gen.

[00:09:08.928] Kent Bye: Yeah, I had a chance to spend a couple of days in Tokyo last year on the way home from going to Qingdao in China. And so what I noticed about just walking around Tokyo was that I saw a lot of people walking together and they were almost wearing uniforms or they're wearing sort of like a white shirt and business attire. But there seemed to be a strong communal collective mindset where people were hanging around in groups a lot. And that there seems to be an emphasis of those groups. And I've imagined that in Japanese culture that it may be difficult for people to stand out as an individual and show their face. Do you think that the virtual reality technologies are allowing them to maybe express more of their individual personality in a way that maybe is more difficult to do in more of a collective culture?

[00:09:52.538] Akihiko Shirai: In this year I felt very interesting thing in France. So I have changed my physical avatar and everyone felt it was changed. You mean you changed your look or what did you change? So in before I had to wear a white shirt and also looks like a professor. But in this year this is like a game creator. So that's a big change. And everyone watch in French culture. For example, the hotel guy watch me, and the security guy watch me, and it's recognized something strange. Why are you the guy? So that's the effect of the physical artist. So let's think about in virtual. Here is too much realistic avatars working, but also we can accept animals or we can accept such manga characters. So you can imagine, for example, Marvel, Iron Man, Disney. So all of the world can be joined to here. That's not acceptable. And also for the teenagers. Yes. If we have children, you want to protect from such as social media. For example, the real face makes an accident, then avatar can protect from them.

[00:11:03.700] Kent Bye: So it sounds like you used to be a professor, but now you have the game studio of GRI, creating these different virtual embodiments in this application of reality. So what is your connection to the students that are here? As you come to Laval, how are you still involved in helping bring over Japanese students in this capacity?

[00:11:21.116] Akihiko Shirai: Yes, Lightfire Live Entertainment, this is an execution, a startup of our family of Guri. So they are working for reality, a new platform of virtual reality, virtual presence, and virtual music producers and creators. And this is 100% for virtual presence. So my colleague who is working in Lightfire Live Entertainment, she is also a virtual YouTuber. So that's a new company. And also I'm working for R&D. like getting patent, research and relation with foreigners and also hiring new talent like student innovation is very welcome. And also the breakthrough student like next gen like VR 5.0 will become from such innovation student.

[00:12:10.093] Kent Bye: And when I was in Tokyo, I had a chance to go to the VR Zone, VR Arcade, and play some of the games there. And I'm just curious to hear from you, what else is happening in Japan when it comes to virtual reality? What are the big trends that you see of what's happening there with VR in Japan?

[00:12:25.841] Akihiko Shirai: Yes, as you know, VR Zone is one of the big players. As you know, Bandai Namco is a big player of character merchandising and toy companies. So character-driven IPs are always beside us. So, for example, here is Avatar Prey with Dragon Ball. Everyone wants to play. Everyone wants to shoot Hadouken. Oh, no, Kamehameha. So like a game, like anime, I think it has always chance with virtual reality. Actually, this is not reality. This is a virtue of something. So reality is such a thing. So we have some imagination, we have some dreams to be realized. So reality is you can become someone else you want to be.

[00:13:12.633] Kent Bye: Yeah, it seems like there's a lot of anime, like Sword Art Online and other, being able to have these different anime experiences. Is that to be another trend that you see? Like, the people who own those anime properties, are they doing things in virtual reality and exploring storytelling in that way?

[00:13:27.500] Akihiko Shirai: OK, so what is entertainment? So that's very important. So entertainment is sort of spice. So there's a spicy scene. Papers. So we need the papers, but we cannot see the same stimulus with the same papers. Then we need to add or we need to change. So this is already experienced. Then we need to develop a new entertainment, new experience in the future. But for virtual reality, the system is already done and we still need a new experience. And also we needed to wear a headset. So, for example, here is a super talent, very famous talent, will be make a live streaming on virtual reality. You will have a chance. So here is the rest of us who want to play the HMD, but here is the rest of us who don't want to use HMD. For example, girls. they want to use HMDs. But the girls love talent. The girls love anime. They want to use HMDs without reasons.

[00:14:39.443] Kent Bye: What were some of the highlights for what you saw this year at Laval Virtual?

[00:14:44.018] Akihiko Shirai: So this is not a direct sales thing. So I'm a researcher. Then I'm researching the relations and engagement of the possibility of avatar society. So for example, we have a lot of avatars, but which kind of avatar have we used? So we show such as girls' avatars, girls' VTuber productions, but someone don't think like so. So European market for the more realistic thing or something, boys or heroes, then we are seeking what kind of look and feel, what kind of relationship, what kind of communication embodiment are needed. This is my subject.

[00:15:26.798] Kent Bye: For you, what are some of the either biggest open questions that you're trying to answer or open problems that you're trying to solve?

[00:15:35.066] Akihiko Shirai: So it's my method. I'm deeply immersed in the community and I try to speak in French. and they'll try to play with children from 0 to 1, actually, not to be 100 to 1,000. So that's why our company doesn't take on the release reality to all over the world, just only on Japanese market, and test, and they'll find a new partner, like a local partner in China, and local partner in US, and local IP partners, then I will release a new generation.

[00:16:08.812] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality is? And what am I able to enable?

[00:16:17.694] Akihiko Shirai: That's very interesting. So I'm seeking VR 5.0, realization of 4.0. So 4.0 will be the engagement, commerce, new virtue, and without HMDs. And at the end of 4.0, it will be the re-obtaining of humanity in VR 5.0. So in this exhibition, I have organized a revolutionary research, always beside the VR 5.0 subject. So face expression by robotics, this is a new style of display of avatar society. And also here is a museum. This is embodiment of handicapped person can be a new musician. So always thinking about new presence. But this is a near future business with us because new presence will organize a live event, music event. Then such as display system, such as music system, such as interface of the virtual and our real world that can make business.

[00:17:24.609] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the immersive community?

[00:17:31.531] Akihiko Shirai: The society always comes from zero, not like millions of people. So I prefer to build 0 to 1 or 1 to 10. And Laval Virtual is always like that. So not like South Coast culture, not like a very huge investment, but face-to-face engagement and reliability can make the new virtual. This is a place of the new virtual.

[00:18:00.719] Kent Bye: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much.

[00:18:02.260] Akihiko Shirai: Thank you. Thank you. See you again.

[00:18:04.221] Kent Bye: So that was Akihiko Shirai. He has been involved with Levol Virtual come back to like 2004. He's from Japan. And at the time of this recording, he was working with GRII. And he still continues to work on VTubers and virtual tubers. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, Well, it was just interesting to hear a little bit more of the history of the connection between what's been happening in the virtual reality communities between France and Japan. And VTubers, the virtual tubers, is a pretty big trend that has started in Japan. It hasn't necessarily taken off in other places as well. I think that's probably in part because of some of the cultural differences that Akihiko was talking about specifically around this modesty or privacy, not wanting to show your face while you're streaming. I'm sure there's lots of other deeper cultural strands that are causing that, but What that has meant is that there's been a lot more leaning into virtual representations of yourself online. I think it maybe gives a little bit more freedom of expression and there's a whole line of intellectual property around manga. I mean, if you just go to VR chat, you could see the extent of the Japanese culture that is just flooded the entire avatar ecosystem in terms of how people want to represent themselves within VR chat. And actually, uh, starting tonight, uh, today is April 28th, 2020. And actually it's going to be the 29th tomorrow in Japan later tonight, just with the time zones. But around 7 PM today is going to be the start of the virtual market for this is going to be in VR chat and it's the fourth iteration of this market. And it's. a whole ecosystem of different Japanese companies. I think there's 40 different worlds over 1400 individual vendors, they're selling avatar representations and scripts and different virtual goods, essentially things that you would experience, mainly in a virtual environment. And there's a whole ecosystem that has been really pioneered and cultivated from Japan, holding these expos and pretty much doubling every year to the point where I think they had last year over 700,000 visitors and they expect well over a million visitors this year. And with coronavirus going on, it could go up potentially even more just depending on how it expands. It is mostly in Japanese, but I think it's going to be a good example of the different types of virtual markets and commerce that's happening within Japan. I know the virtual market has all sorts of QR codes and just trying to like create this whole ecosystem of virtual goods. And I know that Akihiko is thinking a lot about these virtual representations of VTubers. He gave a talk at the Laval Virtual 2020, just giving a little bit of update as to what's happening there. And yeah, just very interesting to hear a little bit more about his story and the culture of Japan and this exchange that has been happening between Laval Virtual and Japan. So, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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