Kizuna Ai VTuber
Kizuna Ai / Kizuna Ai Inc.

VTubers are transforming online content creation by changing the way people look, sound, and act. Here’s who VTubers are, and why they’re so different from an average internet influencer.

Virtual YouTubers

A VTuber is a portmanteau of the phrase “virtual YouTuber.” It’s the term for a type of online content creator who uses a virtually generated avatar while streaming to their audience. VTubers are mostly on streaming and video sharing platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Twitch.

The majority of VTubers are from Japan and often create content in Japanese. However, these influencers typically have a global audience. The avatars of VTubers are often designed to look similar to the characters drawn in Japanese animated shows (in other words, they look like “anime” characters). Because millions of people watch anime globally, the audience for VTubers has expanded significantly outside of Japan.

The actual term “virtual YouTuber” was coined by VTuber Kizuna AI in late 2016. She is the largest VTuber in the world and is widely considered to be the first. She currently has over 4 million followers on YouTube and even more on her other social media accounts. Since her rise in popularity, thousands of other VTubers have emerged across various platforms, contributing to an explosion in the popularity of the genre in the last few years.

What Do VTubers Do?

Kizuna Ai Live Show
Kizuna Ai / Kizuna Ai Inc.

VTubers normally create the same types of content as typical YouTubers. Their online activities include playing games over livestream, talking to their fans, participating in viral trends, and collaborating with other influencers. Many VTubers also perform voiceover work and create original content related to their respective personas.

Part of being a VTuber is building a persona. They adopt a certain personality and way of talking to their audience. This normally influences the kinds of content that they make and their relationship with their fans. VTubers can be both male and female, take on various fantastic characteristics, and blur the line between fiction and reality.

Most VTubers generate income through collecting fan-funded donations, selling merchandise, and taking on sponsorships in their videos. VTubers have also been used as endorsers in large advertising campaigns for products in Japan, with Kizuna Al becoming a national ambassador for Japan’s tourism organization.

VTubers share many similarities with Vocaloid idols, which make up a popular genre of virtual pop stars in Japan. These virtual pop stars release computer-generated music and present as 3D avatars. Many of the same technologies used in Vocaloid have also been adapted in the VTuber industry.

VTuber Technology

VRoid Studio Character Creation
VRoid Studio

There are dozens of commercially available programs that allow VTubers to achieve their desired look and create videos under an avatar. The technology behind VTuber programs is very similar to that of Animoji, the feature found on Apple devices that lets you send messages as an animated emoji version of yourself.

One of the most popular apps is VRoid Studio, which allows users to create a custom avatar for free. These programs use motion-capture technology to track their movements and facial expressions and adjust the avatar accordingly. This lets VTubers freely move around on camera without messing with the illusion.

In addition to changing their appearance, some VTubers also obfuscate their true voices by using voice changers. This is normally done to pitch up or down their voices or to change them altogether. Since many of these VTubers create music, voice changers also serve as autotune for the songs they release under their VTuber name.

Alongside keeping up their persona with their viewers, VTubers also use these programs to protect their identity. It’s very uncommon for these influencers to reveal their true identities to their viewers, so these applications allow them to maintain a following without ever having to show their face.

The VTuber Industry

Hololive Productions Characters
Hololive Production

VTubers have penetrated large parts of online Japanese culture, which has led to the creation of a robust industry surrounding them. This includes VTuber production companies that scout, train, and produce VTubers and their videos. Some of these agencies, such as Hololive Production, have dozens of Youtube channels and creators and hundreds of millions of views.

The VTuber culture has also expanded outside of the country, with content creators outside of Japan also adopting motion-capture avatars during their livestreams and videos.

The Future of Content

Having fictional characters interact with real people has been in popular culture for a long time. In the early 2000s, the animated band Gorillaz sold millions of records while presenting as cartoon characters. Thousands of films and video games have been made using motion-capture technology, and the rise of VTubers is a result of that previously expensive tech becoming accessible.

With the underlying technology becoming even more sophisticated and accessible, we’re likely to keep seeing VTubers and animated influencers rise to prominence in media.

RELATED: What Is TikTok, and Why Are Teens Obsessed with It?

Profile Photo for Vann Vicente Vann Vicente
Vann Vicente has been a technology writer for four years, with a focus on explainers geared towards average consumers. He also works as a digital marketer for a regional e-commerce website. He's invested in internet culture, social media, and how people interact with the web.
Read Full Bio »