EMTECH: “Research and Development for Avatar-Driven Virtual Society in VR4.0 Era”
Hi, my name is Liudmila Bredikhina. I’m a virtual intern at GREE VR Studio Lab and I’m a Master’s Degree student at the Geneva University. I’m currently majoring in Asian Studies and I research Japanese Virtual Beings, such as VTubers.
Introduction: EMTECH and the musée du Quai Branly
On June 27th and 28th 2020, EMTECH (ERC-Funded Research Project “Emotional Machines: The Technological Transformation of Intimacy in Japan”) in cooperation with the Department of Research and Higher Education of the musée du Quai Branly — Jacques Chirac organized a digital conference “Desired Identities”. The organizers of this conference were Elena Giannoulis, Agnès Giard, and Berthold Frommann from the EMTECH research project. The conference coordinators were Anna Gianotti Laban (responsible for scientific events at the musée du Quai Branly) and Liudmila Bredikhina (Geneva University). The conference was originally supposed to take place at the physical location of the museum, however, due to the global health restrictions, the conference was held on the museum’s YouTube channel (it was the museum’s first digital conference). About a dozen of artists, researchers, and writers shared their ideas about “desired identities”, masquerading, and various forms of avatar technology. The full program is available for download at this link. The participants sent their conference presentations in a video format and were grouped into several sessions. After each session, usually consisting of 2–3 videos, the conference speakers were invited to join a WebEx call. During 20 min, the audience could ask the conference speakers any questions by typing them in the chat window of WebEx.
Due to the current state of the pandemic, the majority of work meetings are being held digitally using platforms such as Zoom, Skype, WebEx, or Remo, and people have begun using avatars as their digital identities. This conference explored different forms of “masquerading”, be it virtual idols like Hatsune Miku, kigurumi, VTubers, deep fakes, etc. While in Europe, the usage of avatars for video-conferencing and mask-wearing has shaken up the society, according to Dominique Boullier who gave a talk about fakes, in Japan, the pandemic fueled the development of the avatar society.
“Research and Development for Avatar-Driven Virtual Society in VR4.0 Era”
The EMTECH team contacted Akihiko Shirai and asked him to give a talk about VTubers and the avatar society in Japan. Assisted by Liudmila Bredikhina, he gave a talk about “Research and Development for Avatar-Driven Virtual Society in VR4.0 Era”. The avatar society is the current state of the digital and virtual environments in meta-verse like VRChat, where avatars do not serve the only purpose of virtual presence but become co-workers, entertainers, idols, and researchers. The goal of this presentation was to achieve two things: one, to explain the history, process, and technology behind VTubers and its live entertainment, and second, to report several VTuber driven research case studies.
The majority of conference speakers showed their faces in their videos and some voiced over their presentations without ever showing themselves. We decided to present in a hybrid format — begin with our physical faces and then switch to our avatar forms. Why did we decide to present as virtual characters? Well, originating in Japan, VTubers are 2D and 3D computer-generated avatars controlled by individuals and commonly used to broadcast entertaining content. From a research perspective, VTubers can be recognized as a new form of human beings, or rather, we believe that VTuber development hints at the next generation of human beings. It is important to note that VTubers are one of the driving forces behind technological and human expressions in the avatar driven society. Moreover, VTubers will bring us as users, audiences, researchers, and virtual performers to the next generation with presence technologies and creative content. Keeping all of that in mind, it seemed like a logical choice to demonstrate the passage from the physical body to that of an avatar. Moreover, by using avatars as our visual identities we wanted to show just how exactly avatars can be recognized as a new form of a human being (our avatars presented the topic of our conference) and human expression.
Copyright and redistribution
As it was mentioned in the previous report about IEEE VRinVR, copyright and redistribution can be an issue. Because conferences are streamed on websites such as YouTube, the visual content is distributed or redistributed online, making it necessary to have all the copyrights. If the majority of images used for presentations are created in house or by the panelists themselves there might not be an issue, however, when the visual content used for the conference belongs to other parties, the copyright must be acquired before publication.
At the beginning of our presentation, we explained the history of VR and the emergence of VTubers, for which we needed images such as the Sword of Damocles, Kizuna Ai, or Hatsune Miku. If we wanted to use those images, we had to ask for copyright, however, we did not have the time for that. The solution we came up with was google image search. Google allows the redistribution of its search result screenshots. Thus, we decided to record our computer screen and the search results for each of the topics. Not only did that allow us to bypass copyright issues, but also enabled us to present a greater variety of images to the conference audience.
“High-tech and kyara-ka” panel
As mentioned previously, presentations were grouped into different panel talks. The panel talks took place on WebEx and were approximately 20min long. The audience wrote their questions in the WebEx chat menu and the panelists read them out loud before answering them. Once Akihiko Shirai’s presentation was over, he was invited to participate in a panel talk “High-tech and kyara-ka” with Patrick W. Galbraith, who gave a talk on “Character, Culture, Platform: Locating Emotional Technology in Contemporary Japan”. Patrick W. Galbraith’s talk focused on personal relationships with characters. He argued that understanding emotional technology in contemporary Japan requires consideration of character culture and the character as technology and platform. A number of humans today desire a relationship with a character or a nonhuman other. This desire, now supported by technological innovations, can be traced back to the media and material culture of cartoon fans in the late 1970s and early 1980s (taken from the official program abstract). In other words, according to Patrick W. Galbraith, we might intentionally seek to interact with a machine or a character on an emotional level while perfectly knowing what the other is not and is. Those relationships imagine new ways of living in a more than human world. Protagonists do not act as though characters are real, but rather they present their relationships with characters as real, that is, their emotional response to characters is real.
The panel talk mixed Akihiko Shirai’s presentation which proposed VTubers as a potential form of a new human being and Patrick W. Galbraith’s presentation which focused on emotional attachment to (virtual) characters. Both panelists provided various perspectives on the subject of (virtual) characters, creating an engaging discussion. Three main questions arose from the discussions: 1) the issue of death, 2) the hegemonic and Western opinion about the “uselessness” of otaku, 3) the difference between VTubers and YouTubers. The last one was the easiest to answer: the main difference lies in the act of masquerading because VTubers can design their ideal appearance for broadcasting entertaining content. The first one was a bit more difficult to answer. As individuals engage in relationships with (virtual) characters, different ways of living in a more than human world open up, however, the issue of death arises. As those individuals engage in relationships with characters, the natality goes down. The second question demonstrated the Western media perspective on “otaku”. The fact that those media outlets consider “otaku” as “useless” individuals in contemporary society not only shows a predominance of the hegemonic ideal of what an individual should be but also a lack of cultural knowledge. Those media outlets fail to understand that innovation is often born from the margins.
The goal of the conference was to address the current issues surrounding masking and masquerading in Japan. Unlike most academic conferences that focus solemnly on academic research, this conference mixed academic presentations with short movies and documentaries. The digital format allowed for a wider audience to access the content: those who could not watch the live distribution due to their time-zone could access the YouTube archive. Subtitles were added to all archived videos and made it possible to translate the presentations in any language using the Google service.
At the end of the EMTECH article, we asked ourselves “how can virtual platforms facilitate academic exchange, what do we want to leave behind in the history of humanity, and how can we virtualize the real experience of conferencing.” EMTECH and musée du Quai Branly decided to opt for live-streaming and webinar format. Because the conference speakers submitted their presentations in a video format, they did not have to wake up at a bothersome time to give their talks. The panel talks were organized during time slots that were the least inconvenient for the conference speakers. The conference attempted to resolve the time zones issue by separating the conference videos from the panel discussions.
Just as with IEEE, EMTECH webinar panel talks lacked engagement between the panelists and their audience. It is possible that a feeling of presence is needed for the audience to engage with the conference speakers. As we continue to move forward in the domain of virtual and digital conferences, we have to resolve the time-zone issue and the lack of interactions between the conference speakers and their audience. How can we virtualize the real experience of conferences? How can we engage our audience? What other forms of conference archive can we create in virtual and digital spaces? How can we create content that is available for an audience that does not understand English?
See you in virtual.
DAY1-[14h00–14h30] Akihiko SHIRAI
“Research and Development for Avatar-Driven Virtual Society in VR4.0 Era” #EMTECH #DesiredIdentities
About Liudmila Bredikhina
Liudmila Bredikhina is an anthropologist, working mainly on avatars and virtual characters that enable people to perform and express their virtual identity. Her research is conducted through a gender approach, questioning how human interactions, self-expression, and kinship relations are re-negotiated in a more than human world.