The Hatsune Miku demo booth at South by Southwest Interactive 2013. #sxswmiku
The creators of Hatsune Miku, the virtual singer software, discussed how the vast collaborative effort that is expressed via Miku blurs the perceived boundaries between audience and star at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival 2013 in Austin, Texas.
Miku is singing synthesizer software that is virtualized as an anime of a young female pop star with an abundance of ponytailed blue hair. The full name, Hatsune Miku roughly translates as “First Sound from the Future” — and it is a welcome sound, one that is incredibly popular, with millions of fans worldwide and hundreds of YouTube fan-based music videos.
Many of the Miku fans — not all of which are young Asian females — create songs and share them within the Miku community, where they are vetted. The user of Miku creates lyrics and a song: the Miku vocaloid software sings and performs the song. Fans vote popular songs up. Songs that make it to the top in the eyes of the fan community have a chance to be selected for a virtual digital performance.
A virtual singer, projected as a hologram animation to sold-out venues, performs digitally for a live audience who respond with the same enthusiasm they would exhibit for a live performer. But the audience cheers as much for each other as for the virtual singer, because the fans create the music.
Crypton CEO Hiroyuki Itoh. MIKU Participatory culture, boundaries vanish between fan, artist.
Crypton Future Media CEO Hiroyuki Itoh and his creative team tried to explain to the Austin audience, most of who had not experienced a Miku performance, how Miku, the virtual singer avatar, provides creative collaboration as songwriters create and post songs, which are enjoyed and voted upon by fans.
Each song comes with a unique copyright, with variable copyright options available to the creator who uploads the image for sharing with the community.
Revenue for Crypton may also come via mobile games and advertising. Interestingly, Miku fans seem to enjoy it when the company partners the Miku image with large corporations. When they see Miku’s image coupled with a popular food or drink franchise, they see her success as their success.
Although the software is mostly sold and used in Japan and other Asian countries, it has international appeal. Miku has crossed beyond Japan and is now an international phenomenon, as the software has been bootlegged into Thai, Russian, Spanish, and other languages.
There is also a virtual interface—Miku dance software. Downloadable Miku skins are also available to overlay onto the singer, making changes to the singer’s appearance for the users. All of the skins and other options are free to users.
Itoh observed that Japan’s fan culture appears to be much more coherent and organized than in the US. This may be a factor in the success of the product. But Miku is not a human idol such as a real-life singer: Hatune Miku is a symbol of an idol, and one that evolves and mutates through mass audience input.
What is fascinating about the Miku project is its participatory culture and vast complexity: users’ content freely contributed, collaborative creation, celebration of the idol at conventions, in games, in role-play, at live concerts.
The music software and the music created with Miku software is profoundly misunderstood by the US media, where journalists have sometimes described Miku as a “fake” singer. The user of the word “fake” has angered Miku fans worldwide, and has led to death threats made by fans towards journalists. Fans activities have been denigrated in racist and simplistic tones as “one more of those weird things Japanese people do.” Judgmental and naïve descriptors such as “fake” fail to describe Miku. A more enlightened understanding recognizes that Miku music is participatory and collaborative.
Hiroyuki Itoh, Cryton CEO, Tara Knight, Kanea Maraki, and Alex Leavitt were the panelists at the Miku presentation at South by Southwest 2013.
Itoh said that part of Miku’s success could lay in the fact that she has no back story. Miku just is: the fans overlay their own stories onto the avatar. Although the software is not open source, the creation is open-ended and invites user input. Miku is a crowd-sourced character. And the crowd controls the image, punishing those who push the boundaries defined by the majority. User generated content, fan generated content define Hatsune Miku.
The original Miku image is of a 16-year-old girl singer. Fans create artwork of their idol. Hatsune Miku is evolving visually as an animé image as well as musically. The fans spin off the original “no story” girl singer into extreme creations. Abuse of the image happens. Porn images and slasher fantasies of Miku pop up on the web. Fans swarm onto anything that is not canonical and kill it on YouTube, with thumbs down votes and vitriolic comments. What is wanted, what is not wanted, is managed by the fans.
YouTube’s up or down votes affect the algorithms that determine which videos will be offered when users search for Miku content. Fans check in every few weeks and rank new Miku videos. They curate and compile evaluation videos about Miku music videos. The things the fans like get pushed up and those characteristics enter the canon.
As the creator fans create the content, they evolve Miku into what they want her to be. The fans are in control of the Idol they are creating.
Creators and artists are often captured by their creative games. There could come to pass a future where Miku evolves into something more sentient, with perhaps an AI element.
The Miku software sales team at the 2013 South by Southwest Interactive this spring, bringing something completely different to an event that thrives on invention.
Links of interest:
More images from 2013 South by Southwest Interactive
2013 SxSW Interactive Presentations on Soundcloud
Find out more about the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin Texas