Where Is My Virtual Pop Star?
CREDIT: Ezaki Glico Co./AKB48
Japanese pop group AKB48 has more than 60 full-time and aspiring members, but it was one addition in 2011 that really turned heads. Aimi Eguchi was so popular that, just after she joined the group, she appeared in candy commercials, a privilege usually reserved for veteran members. Fans asked, who was this new superstar?
The new singer was a track-and-field athlete, a teenager and, most importantly, a computer. Eguchi was not a person at all, but rather a mash-up of the six most popular members of the pop group. She is not the first virtual pop star in Japan, either. Eguchi joins the ranks of Hatsune Miku, an anime virtual pop star who even performs live. Although advances in computer graphics and processing power allow for virtual stars to routinely show up in music videos, commercials and even on stage, there are limitations to how lifelike a virtual star will look in live performances in the near future.
"Computer speed is one limitation, the most obvious one," said Randall Hand, a visualization scientist for the U.S. Department of Defense. "The other issue is simply the complexity."
Although Miku can perform live, she is essentially a cartoon image. In her live concerts, she appears in 3-D, as ahologram. Rendering her image is fairly simple since she is just a lot of pixels with a synthesized voice.
Eguchi, on the other hand, looks like a real person. The technology to create Eguchi is similar to what was used to make the movie "Benjamin Button," where Brad Pitt's character ages backward from an old man into a young child. In both cases, the faces of real people (the actual pop stars and Brad Pitt) were scanned and recorded. The 3-D facial scanning is then combined with multidirectional photography. The result is a very life-like image, one that has the same expressions, wrinkles and quirks as a real human.
Perfection is important when it comes to creating virtual people whether they sing for a living or not, Hand told InnovationNewsDaily. If a robot or image is almost real, but not quite believable, it falls into a region that computer scientists call the uncanny valley, where something whether it be a robot or a computer-generated virtual character strikes us as creepy because it is almost, but not quite perfectly, human-like.
To have a 3-D hologram of Eguchi on stage, it would take far more than just some cutting-edge projection equipment. "You'd need much more than a face," said Hand, including realistic walking gaits, postures and an array of human movements that would make her seem like a human performer. In "Benjamin Button," the movements were all achieved by motion-tracking Brad Pitt and then using that in the computer program to render him at different ages.
Although Eguchi could easily record scores of music videos or commercials, a live performance would also need an immense amount of data storage, which is a problem in various areas of advanced visual effects, according to Hand. Some of the most advanced simulations for humans are looking at muscle and bone interactions in the biomedical field, and not for entertainment. Until the cost comes down, said Hand, it's still cheaper to hire a real pop star than create one on a computer.
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