SEOUL, South Korea — In a vast studio outside Seoul, technicians huddled in front of monitors, watching cartoon K-pop singers — at least one of whom had a tail — dance in front of a psychedelic backdrop. A woman with fairy wings fluttered by.
Everyone on screen was real, sort of. The singers had human counterparts in the studio, isolated in cubicles, with headsets on their faces and joysticks in both hands. Immersed in a virtual world, they were competing to become part of (hopefully) the next big Korean girl band.
The stakes were high. A few of their competitors, after failing to make the cut, had been dropped into bubbling lava.
This, some say, is the future of entertainment in the metaverse, brought to you by South Korea, the world’s testing ground for all things technological.
“There are a lot of people who want to get into the metaverse, but it hasn’t reached critical mass, users-wise, yet,” said Jung Yoon-hyuk, an associate professor at Korea University’s School of Media and Communication. “Other places want to venture into the metaverse, but to be successful, you need to have good content. In Korea, that content is K-pop.”
In the metaverse — whatever that is, exactly — the normal rules don’t apply. And the Korean entertainment industry is delving into the possibilities, confident that fans will happily follow.
K-pop groups have had virtual counterparts for years. Karina, a real-life member of the band Aespa, can be seen on YouTube chatting with her digital self, “ae-Karina,” in an exchange that comes off as seamlessly as late-night TV.
Korean company Kakao Entertainment wants to take things further. It’s working with a mobile gaming company, Netmarble, to develop a K-pop band called Mave that exists only in cyberspace, where its four artificial members will interact with real-life fans around the world.
Kakao is also behind “Girl’s Re:verse,” a K-pop-in-the-metaverse show, whose debut episode on streaming platforms this month was viewed more than 1 million times in three days. For both projects, Kakao is contemplating album releases, brand endorsements, video games and digital comics, among other things.
Compared with their Korean counterparts, media companies in the United States have only engaged in “light experimentation” with the metaverse so far, said Andrew Wallenstein, president and chief media analyst of Variety Intelligence Platform.
Countries like South Korea “are often looked at like a test bed for how the future is going to pan out,” Wallenstein said. “If any trend is going to move from overseas to the U.S., I would put South Korea at the front of the line in terms of who is likeliest to be that springboard.”
South Korea’s experiments with virtual entertainment date back at least 25 years, to the brief life span of an artificial singer called Adam. A child of the ’90s, he was a pixelated creature of computer graphics, with sweepy eye-covering bangs and a raspy voice that tried a bit too hard to sound sexy. Adam disappeared from the public eye after releasing an album in 1998.
But digital creations like him, or it, have been a hallmark of Korean popular culture for a generation. Today, Korean “virtual influencers” like Rozy and Lucy have Instagram followings in the six figures and promote very real brands, like Chevrolet and Gucci.
The influencers have been purposely made to look almost real but not quite; their near-human quality is part of their appeal, said Baik Seung-yup, Rozy’s creator.
“We want to create a new genre of content,” said Baik, who estimated that about 70% of the world’s virtual influencers are Korean.
According to McKinsey, more than $120 billion was spent globally on developing metaverse technology in the first five months of 2022. Much of that came from companies operating in the United States, said Matthew Ball, a tech entrepreneur who has written a book about the metaverse.
The highest-profile recent example was when Facebook renamed itself “Meta” in a multibillion-dollar attempt to embrace the next digital frontier, only to see its stock tumble and its earnings decline.
The South Korean government is investing more than $170 million to support development efforts here, forming what it calls a “metaverse alliance” that includes hundreds of companies. Ball said it is one of the most aggressive programs of its kind. But while South Korea may be “leagues ahead” when it comes to synthetic pop stars, whether its companies are likely to take a leading role as the metaverse evolves “is an open question,” Ball said.
Government backing for new technologies has paid off for South Korea in the past. The country built its modern economy over the past few decades on the backs of tech conglomerates and placed a winning bet on the cellphone industry, laying the groundwork for it to become what Bernie Cho, a music executive in Seoul, called “the most wired and wireless country.”
Teenagers here scroll through comics on phones, consume countless hours of Korean dramas without a cable box and zealously follow K-pop stars on social media and new platforms. On Zepeto and Weverse, fans interact with each other, sometimes as customizable avatars, and with their favorite bands.
Kakao Entertainment — an arm of Kakao, South Korea’s do-everything tech company — is billing Mave, its artificial band in progress, as the first K-pop group created entirely within the metaverse, using machine learning, deepfake, face swap and full 3D production technology. To give them global appeal, the company wants the “girls” of Mave to eventually be able to converse in, say, Portuguese with a Brazilian fan and Mandarin with someone in Taiwan, fluently and convincingly.
The idea, said Kang Sung-ku, a technical director for the project, is that once such virtual beings can simulate meaningful conversations, “no real human will ever be lonely.”