Only in Japan: Virtual Pop Star Sweeps through PS Home

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Most PC gamers know the film “Wargames” and chuckle at seeing Matthew Broderick hook up a synthesizer speaker to hear what a PC would sound like if it could talk. At the time, though, the crude, halting sounds were state-of-the-art stuff.

Now, more than two decades later after WOPR nearly gave everyone a permanent orange afro and Max Headroom had entered our living rooms, we have synthesized pop divas.

Yamaha’s musical expertise would introduce music professionals and PC hobbyists to Vocaloid technology in 2004, but since then, it has gone through various improvements that have seen it explode into the public eye in recent years thanks to both fans and its virtual pop stars. Instead of synthesizing instruments to help create orchestrated works in your bedroom, Vocaloid technology can now allow you to create songs with its library of voice samples take from actors, actresses, and even Okinawan musician, Gackt.

There are more technical aspects to this, but suffice to say, all one has to do is punch in the lyrics, set up the music, and go. Crypton Future Media’s Character Vocal series using Yamaha’s Vocaloid 2 engine has also worked to personify each library, giving each one a face to match its voice with an accompanying illustrated character representing it like a photographic bio. For a little less than $200 per package, as long as you have the lyrics and the patience, you can make your own music.

Vocaloid mascot, Hatsune Miku, first introduced in 2007 by Crypton Future Media with the second generation of Vocaloid tech, now has her own rhythm game alongside her fellow virtual Vocaloid stars courtesy of Sega for the PSP. If you’re still not sure what this means…and if you can take the sugar shock…check out the intro to Project Diva. As far as I can tell, the spoken intro, and the singing, were all generated by the software.

She’s also appeared in Japan’s PS Home. A rotating stage has been set up in the general area of Japan’s Home with scheduled performances, often two songs at a time, with Hatsune Miku performing each one against a video backdrop of changing scenes.

Ready for more? Here’s a clip of the concert courtesy of a fan.

I logged in and checked it out for myself and unless you’re into J-pop, you might not like the experience as much as others. The concert I saw was a little different…Hatsune Miku was sitting on a floating heart while her hands and arms did the performing…but there was a large crowd gathered ’round waiting for the big act.

Looking around, it was fascinating seeing the fan buzz that a performance like this has in Home, although I suspect a few were there out of simple curiosity or to get the special in-Home item that watching the performance will give them. Quite a few avatars were dressed in their cosplay as their favorite virtual pop idol amidst Helghan helmeted soldiers and kimono-wearing onlookers. And at the end of the performance, everyone got a leek which is apparently Hatsune’s special accessory which she’s holding here:

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A few of the fans, who had returned to catch another virtual performance, already had these. Some had even opted to buy the “double up” version of holding two at the same time while wearing their Hatsune Miku threads. Of course, there was me as a secret gaijin, doing the only cheer moves that I could remember from the menu without getting hopelessly lost amidst the kanji. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

One of the interesting things about what had helped her to achieve this kind of popularity wasn’t in savvy marketing or a blitzkrieg of products, but what hobbyists had done with the technology, cranking out one song after another in a surprising rush of creativity. One of the most popular fan-made films that helped to make people sit up and take notice of what can be done shows Hatsune singing levan Polkka which you can watch here:

Each vocaloid set is geared towards a certain sound. Hatsune’s, if you haven’t guessed by now, is geared more towards J-pop, although it is possible to have her sing other types of songs. All of these sing in Japanese, but Yamaha has also made few that are bilingual with English.

So what does this all mean? Are singers in danger of being replaced by technology? I don’t think they have anything to worry about, but it does put even more options into the hands of aspiring songwriters and shy, would-be performers to surprise us with. That’s one of the big take aways. Project Diva even allows you to import MP3s and create custom tracks for use in the game.

If they can help a virtual pop idol like Hatsune Miku achieve this level of success, anything is possible…even Skynet giving up its war on humanity to go multiplatinum instead as an eighties tribute band opening for Max Headroom.