Rei Toei Lives!: Hatsune Miku and the Design of the Virtual Pop Star
Conner, Thomas H.
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Cyberspace is everting, and some of the first digital figures to recolonize physical space are virtual pop stars — non-corporeal characters presented as singular musical performers with the appearance of agency — projected as three-dimensional performance simulations within existing concert venues. In America, these figures thus far have been actualized as resurrections of rappers, from the Tupac “hologram” in 2012 to lifelike new performances by the late Eazy-E and ODB in 2013. In Japan, these actualized figures are primarily stylized animations of characters created around a vocal-synthesis computer application, the most popular being digital software agent Hatsune Miku. This study examines the creation and design of virtual pop star presentations, determining what theories from visual communication, robotics design, performance studies, and augmented/mixed realities are at play and connecting them within this new phenomenon. Current virtual pop star presentations remain mere simulations of actual holography, though their performances and reception have framed them as such; thus, this study begins with a history of holography and the relation of that technique to the emerging performance technologies, as well as a relational history of previous virtual pop stars, from Alvin & the Chipmunks to Gorillaz. Qualitative interviews with technicians, artists, and executives illustrate designers’ creative motives, theoretical negotiations, and the presentations’ performance outcomes. Findings indicate that these current virtual pop stars — whether presented as stylized animation in Asia or photo-realistic images in America, each situated on either side of the uncanny valley — are transitional figures, bridging our experience with the normative behavior of human performers (who thus far remain as the characters’ digitally translated antecedents) toward a future co-starring more vivid, interactive, and possibly even intrusive digital agents and avatars. The continuing development of digital projection technology in this performance field heralds particular doom for the hegemony of the screen in mediating human-computer interaction. As digital presentations step off a 2D plane and into the 3D world, communication presence is complicated, the very concept of virtuality begins to dissolve, and traditional performative tasks are distributed across a wider network of non-performers.