At the beginning of October, Dimension Nova (跨次元新星) became the latest TV craze to hit China. Hosted by iQIYI, one of the country’s leading streaming platforms, this new show starts with what’s now a well-worn concept for the site responsible for The Rap of China: a talent contest. What makes Dimension Nova remarkable however, is that all of the contestants are virtual creations.
Featuring a line-up of budding virtual idols and a trio of celebrity judges, the show has generated Chinese social media hashtags that have been viewed over 6 billion times, while it’s also been greeted with questions like “Lowkey like how do they film this I’m so confused,” from baffled viewers watching it on YouTube.
Viewers join a trio of hugely successful stars in actress and TV personality Angelababy, former member of boyband NINE PERCENT Wang Linkai, and The9 singer Esther Yu, alongside Mongolian pop singer Tengger, who acts as the Dimension Nova “museum curator.”
The show features 22 anime characters, among which are a couple of foxes and what looks like a snow cat, DJs and more than a few virtual “little fresh meat.” At the beginning of the show, the judges outline what they’re looking for in these virtual idols, with descriptions ranging from “someone cute” to “someone dark and handsome” and “someone cool.” It’s pretty deep.
While the virtual idols take some getting used to, especially when they get glitchy (more on that in a moment), the show also breaks through the fourth wall at times to shows us the tech people controlling these digital stars. Netizens have therefore given it the nickname “Programmer 101,” a play on Produce 101, the successful Korean variety show franchise that gave rise to pop group Rocket Girls 101 in China.
Our first impressions of the show were… not great. Set in a strange church-like room with idols hidden behind picture frames on a wall facing the judges, a la Hogwarts castle from the Harry Potter films, the show is immediately kitschy and overly cute. Things don’t get better as the virtual idols are introduced. Their performances are static and robotic (not entirely surprising, of course), and the music quality is low, to say the least.
As it stands Dimension Nova has a score of 7.4 out of ten on Chinese ratings site Douban. Yet despite the seemingly high score, there’s a been a spate of critical comments on the site.
While the show has been well-received because of its comic factor, with Mongolian “museum curator” Tengger often caught seeming nonplussed by the characters presented, one of the most telling critiques of the first few episodes is that the technology for these idols does not seem quite ready for what the show wants to do with them.
On the one hand, the show uses motion capture technology in an attempt to render virtual idols in real time, while also using augmented reality cameras to broadcast on TV, no mean feat. While the use of virtual idols through social media platforms like Weibo can be rehearsed and refined, what Dimension Nova assumes to show is the difficulty of broadcasting in real time.
A performance by one of the idols, Meiyu, on the very first episode of the show, was halted as the character froze while attempting to dance. The incident highlighted the difficulty of depicting live performance and interaction. Similarly, fans online have slammed the show’s graphics, with one Douban user saying the idols look like “they are at 360 or 480p resolution.”
Others have pointed out that the show very clearly is aiming to harvest potential virtual idol stars, as well as the audience base for these characters.
With periodic glitches, questionable music and design quality, the audience’s focus is placed directly on the folks controlling these virtual stars, rather than the stars themselves. That runs in direct contrast to what iQIYI have expressed they want from the show — to present realistic and relatable virtual idols for their audience.
Seemingly, iQIYI’s great hope for the TV show is that it can act as a breakthrough for the emergence of virtual idols in China. While the country has been relatively slow to pick up on the commercial opportunities of such creations, the technology surrounding virtual idols has been around for a while, and we’ve already seen some interesting implementations within China — particularly in the social media and ecommerce spheres.
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Dimension Nova platforms virtual idols from companies such as Yuehua Entertainment (the home of the likes of Wang Yibo and former Rocket Girl Meng Meiqi). The inclusion of high-power labels like Yuehua in the scope of virtual idol culture is a sign of how the industry is expanding, with labels more cognizant of the profitable opportunities in pushing their content through virtual personas.
iQIYI also has its own virtual idol label, called Rich Boom, which is home to a character called Producer C (a mechanized panda head) and a DJ called P-2 (a multifunctional household robot) among others. They are one of a number of entertainment companies investing in the virtual idol industry, alongside the likes of Netease, Bilibili and others.
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One of the keys to pushing these virtual idols is in creating original stories and unique personalities. While some come with silly names like 好帅 (“very handsome”), others talk about their star signs and their places of birth, while also expressing their admiration and connection with the show’s judges.
One of the best-received idols on the show, Purple, goes a step further in tackling the existential nightmare that is the virtual idol industry. With her own Weibo account, one of her most successful posts makes use of the hashtag #我不是虚拟偶像# which means “I’m not a virtual idol.” That hashtag has been viewed 13 million times by netizens.
While it’s still unclear how successful the contestants on this first season of Dimension Nova will be after the show, what is clear is that labels and companies are pushing towards a brave new world of virtual collaborations, live performances and branding opportunities. And with a second season of iQIYI’s show seemingly already confirmed, this trend doesn’t look like it’ll be going away any time soon.
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