Puppet shows have always been a way for people to take on different personalities, and speak more comfortably while directing attention towards the puppets and away from themselves. While there are still a number of popular shows featuring puppetry, and a few well known puppeteers, including Jeff Dunham, puppetry isn’t as popular as it once was, with one exception.
Streaming and VTubing is a relatively new form of entertainment where a streamer dons a virtual avatar to engage with their audience. I would consider this medium a modern form of puppetry. Yes, the puppets aren’t physical. They’re generated by a computer. But at the end of the day, it is a person controlling a character.
A Partial History of VTubing
VTubing is a fairly new phenomenon, but it still has an interesting history. I admit that I’m not even close to an expert on the industry, at least not yet. But one could argue that VTubing received its origin in virtual idols like Hatsune Miku. Miku is a virtual pop idol from Japan. She’s entirely digital, but has still become a worldwide celebrity.
Eventually virtual idols, with real people behind their characters started to emerge. A company called HoloLive helped make them popular. Over time, independent streamers began using virtual avatars and streaming on YouTube.
Eventually people started to stream using virtual avatars on Twitch as well, and the genre continued to grow rapidly. People with 3D models for VR chat also began streaming. Then, with the onset of lockdowns from COVID-19, many people who couldn’t find work, or were otherwise stuck at home, decided to try streaming.
VTubing utilizes a number of different technologies. The first thing to do, if a person wants to do VTubing, is decide whether they want to use a 3D model or a 2D model. 3D models are easier to create, and a person can quickly create a basic model in VROID Studio. 2D models are more complicated, because a rigger has to take a 2D image and use software like Live2D to programmatically modify it into a moving object.
Because of the significant amount of work involved, 2D models can actually cost significantly more than 3D models, and as the VTubing genre became more popular, more artists started learning their skills necessary to create and rig models.
There’s a fairly large community centered around VTubing. And while this community is in no way unified, it’s still fairly impressive how large and robust it is. Many streamers focus on interacting with their chat, and some VTubers are a fairly massive following. VTubers and their fans are generally easy going and comfortable with interacting with each other. Even on Twitter, interactions tend to be quite friendly, and people are generally open to talking to others in the community, whether they know them personally or not.
Regarding communities, there’s a strong LGBTQ+ element in the VTubing community. It’s probably not surprising. Having a virtual avatar allows a person to be more free in expressing themselves. They can model their avatar based on their ideal body, and express elements of themselves that would be difficult to do if they live streamed with a webcam. Aside from the technological benefits, I also think that the comfortable nature of the VTubing community also just makes it easier for people to express themselves.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to include this part of the article here. It could be its own piece. I could have refrained from commenting on the issue as a whole. But I wanted to go over some politics involved with streaming.
While the VTubing community is, as a whole, quite wonderful, there are of course disagreements, and toxic elements. The fanbase itself is generally very supportive, but they can get as competitive as any sports fan, trying to compare VTubers to each other, pick favorites, and nitpick at anything they don’t like.
VTubing has grown quite rapidly over the past year or so. The pandemic especially has fueled an increase in number of people interested in streaming and watching streams.
Some people have argued that VTubing is reaching the end of its golden age and that from here on out, we should expect it to decline. That’s the argument made by Hero Hei. And I understand his point. I do expect the VTubing industry to crash. Once the lockdown ends, many people who tried out VTubing will try to find new jobs, might return to college, and so on.
However, VTubing is in its golden age, in the way that the internet was in its golden age at the peak of the dot com bubble. It too experienced a massive crash. As internet technology began to emerge, company after company arose, and people flocked to the markets to buy into them.
The party looked like it would never end. But it did. And there was a hell of a hangover. Many of the companies went out of business. People lost a lot of money. The crash seemed to be the end of the era of internet based companies. But fast forward to 2020 and things look very different. Internet technology is a massive part of our world, and billions of people use the internet daily.
I expect the same for VTubing. Sure, a lot of streamers will stop streaming. A lot of users will leave. But it’s only the beginning of the genre, as a whole.
I haven’t started streaming using a virtual avatar yet. They can cost a lot of money to design and rig for streaming. But I do plan on setting up three separate avatars. It makes sense for me, because I have a lot of different interests, and while I’d like to cover them all on stream, it can also be useful to separate those interests into different personalities that are more relatable.
A lot of streamers remain in character all the time. I don’t. For one, it’s too much work mentally to remember all of that information. For another, I still consider myself a virtual puppeteer. My streams will feature my characters, but at the end of the day, I’m the one streaming and running the show.
It’ll be interesting to see how VTubing and related activities continue to evolve over time. I don’t know if I’ll always be part of it, but either way I expect it to be an overall fun experience.
Special thanks to Astrid for giving me the idea for the section on the VTubing Bubble. Originally published on Vocal as A New Age of Puppetry.