Virtual singers Michau and Damsan became major attractions at the Ho Do Ho Chi Minh City International Music Festival in December 2022, thanks to their holographic displays and vocals provided by real-life singers.

Michau drew inspiration from Princess Mi Chau, a character from the Vietnamese legend of “Mi Chau – Trong Thuy.”

Meanwhile, Damsan embodied the heroic chieftain of the E De ethnic group from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, as depicted in the legendary tale “The Great Epic of Sir Dam San.”

The strategic director of AVAS, Nguyen Tien Huy, played a crucial role in the creation of Michau and Damsan. He and co-founder Le Thanh Tung were both technology enthusiasts and passionate about Vietnamese cultural values.

The duo knew from the beginning that they wanted to draw inspiration from legendary historic characters to create their virtual idols, with the aim of attracting Gen Z, the generation born between 1997 and 2012.

AVAS members work to create virtual characters. Photo: B.M. / Tuoi Tre

Once the virtual characters were created, AVAS began developing stories, costumes, and a metaverse—a virtual reality space where users can interact with each other in a computer-generated environment.

The team took inspiration from Son Doong Cave, one of the world’s largest natural caves located in Quang Binh Province, north-central Vietnam.

In order to stay true to Vietnamese culture, AVAS ensured that the personalities of Mi Chau and Dam San were faithful to their respective legends. They also focused on creating stories that would resonate with emotions and dressed the virtual idols in appealing attire for young people.

After numerous attempts with traditional garb, the final designs for Mi Chau and Dam San featured unique outfits, including high boots and traditional Vietnamese patterns such as the country’s symbolic bronze drum. Michau’s appearance was completed with a chignon hairstyle.

Once the stories, personalities, and 3D character designs were finalized, movements and voices were added. Choreographers wore motion capture outfits to record real-life movements, while 80 percent of the virtual singers’ voices came from two professional singers.

“Our intention was never to create an idol solely using AI; instead, we combined certain characteristics taken from real people to give a sense of vitality and connection,” explained Huy.

Although AVAS was satisfied with the final results of Michau and Damsan, there were some hiccups during the performance that showcased the challenges of utilizing virtual idols, such as subpar holographic projection due to the high cost of quality screens.

“A year ago, holographic screen leasing services were not yet popular, but now high-quality LED mesh screens are readily available and provide a much better viewing experience for the audience,” Huy stated.

Tung Monkey poses for a photo with a motion capture outfit, which is used to create virtual characters. Photo: B.M. / Tuoi Tre

Virtual representations of real people

In order to create virtual characters based on real individuals, Tung used 3D scanning techniques to capture their faces and employed AI to identify their characteristics, resulting in 95 percent similarity to the real people.

The team then used software to simulate the movement of fabrics on the characters’ bodies, which were recorded using motion capture outfits.

The final step involved optimizing and fine-tuning the finer details, a process that took approximately one month.

According to Tung, there are three categories of popular virtual characters.

Realistic characters resemble real people and fulfill roles such as singers, models, and brand ambassadors. Due to their human-like appearance, they can easily connect with audiences.

The second category consists of characters based on real people, such as the virtual representation of the late Paul Walker from Hollywood’s “Fast and Furious” movies.

The greatest risk for the first two categories is the potential for audiences to enter the “Uncanny Valley,” a psychological state where the resemblance to a human being causes negative emotional responses and discomfort.

The final category encompasses characters based on unreal objects, such as monsters, animals, or dwarves. These characters are generally accepted by audiences since they have no ties to real people.

An AVAS member works on a virtual character. Photo: B.M. / Tuoi Tre

The future of virtual idols

Famous virtual characters exist worldwide, such as Hatsune Miku from Japan, the A-Soul girl band from China, and Saejin from South Korea.

One of the earliest successful virtual bands was the Gorillaz, created in 1998. The virtual band won several Grammy awards and has nearly 11 million subscribers on YouTube.

Virtual idols continue to appeal primarily to Gen Z due to their representation of diverse cultures and technology. Gen Z readily embrace virtual idols more than previous generations.

However, interest in virtual characters could likely diminish over time. The stories, personalities, and talents of these characters are crucial for maintaining an audience. In other countries, virtual characters have their own lives and daily activities.

“We are committed to accelerating the creation of digital content,” Tung emphasized.

Virtual singer Mong Mo created by Nguyen Hoang Nhat. Photo: Nguyen Hoang Nhat

Virtual idols may be a new addition to the entertainment industry, but they still require human creators. Audiences still seek connections with other people and the emotions that come from them, as mentioned by Nguyen Hoang Nhat, the creator of a virtual singer named Mong Mo.