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Hatsune Miku is playing Coachella, but she’s not human. Why brands are working with digital avatars

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Hatsune Miku is playing Coachella, but she’s not human. Why brands are working with digital avatars

On Friday morning, Hatsune Miku performs songs on her biggest stage yet — Coachella.

The turquoise-haired Japanese icon has been touring North America, singing to thousands of fans in large concert venues. She’s inked branding deals over the years with companies including Google . And on Friday, she’s expected to thrill her followers at one of the world’s biggest music festivals — on the same day as Lana Del Rey and the Deftones.

But Miku is not human. She’s a totally digital creation, like an online avatar or mascot.

Her music — mostly synthesizer-heavy dance pop — is created from software developed by the Sapporo, Japan-based technology company Crypton Future Media.

The technology lets people, including fans, type in lyrics and punch in a melody. The program generates a singing voice for the song. Crypton then licenses the songs from the fans for her to sing at concerts. Miku herself is an illustrated character, resembling a 16-year-old girl from an anime or manga. To “perform” onstage, Miku’s image is displayed on a giant screen as a video behind a live band.

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Unlike the “hologram” performances of deceased celebrity artists (think Tupac and Roy Orbison) that took the music industry by storm a few years ago, virtual artists aren’t simply re-creations — they’re avatars performing original music.

As it would be for a local indie rock artist, landing a spot at Coachella is a significant milestone for Miku. And her human creators. One of the people from Crypton who will be there at Miku’s performance at the festival’s Mojave tent is Riki Tsuji, a member of the company’s global business team.

“I’ve never been to Coachella, so I have no idea what kind of people are going there, what the crowds are gonna be like,” said Tsuji, who is traveling with Miku on tour. “But we’ll be putting together a show that hopefully they won’t forget.”

An image of Hatsune Miku.

(Courtesy of Crypton Future Media Inc.)

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Hatsune Miku is part of an expanding group of digital, non-human performers that are attracting the attention of brands and music fans.

They’ve generated fans from younger generations of audiences that brands are eager to attract and understand — the kinds of kids who spend two to three hours a day on average on Fortnite and Roblox and are thus comfortable interacting with digital characters and online worlds.

One non-human digital influencer, named Miquela, boasts 2.6 million followers on Instagram and has done commercials for Calvin Klein and BMW. She’s represented by major Hollywood talent firm Creative Artists Agency, best known for working with A-listers including Brad Pitt and Viola Davis.

“There’s a new paradigm in terms of the digital world and the digital landscape,” said Phil Quist, a music and emerging technology agent at CAA. “When you think about what that looks like moving forward, those kids are going to be so used to being in those realms that a lot of their entertainment is going to come from that space as well.”

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Hatsune Miku performs at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre in Vancouver to a crowd of fans on April 4.

Hatsune Miku performs at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre in Vancouver to a crowd of fans on April 4.

(MIKU EXPO 2024 North America Vancouver show)

How much money a nonhuman virtual artist can earn varies widely., Gigs, ranging from social media posts to live performances, can generate up to nearly seven figures, Quist said.

“It ranges, but it’s very commensurate in terms of the following and engagement,” Quist said. “I think it can be comparable to ‘traditional talent’ in terms of what those deals look like.”

In addition to her Coachella appearance, Miku is putting on a North American tour, which includes 21 concerts in 17 cities. Initially, Miku announced 17 performances , but the tour expanded because of demand, Tsuji said.

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Miku began as a singing voice synthesizer (a.k.a. a “vocaloid”) in 2007. Her voice has been used in more than 100,000 songs.

“She’s very much a vessel for people to kind of express themselves and come together as a community,” Tsuji said. “It’s not just an artist-listener relationship. Each listener could also be an artist in this community.”

Angelbaby, a Hume digital music artist

Angelbaby, a Hume digital music artist

(Courtesy of Hume)

But the growth of nonhuman influencers comes at a time when actual performers are worried about how digitization and automation through artificial intelligence could impact future work. The cost of creating a digital avatar could become cheaper as technology evolves. Human influencers could find themselves competing for the same brand deals as nonhuman ones.

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The fandom surrounding digital artists can rival that of human musicians. During Austin’s South by Southwest festival in 2022, fans uploaded videos from a concert by digital music artist angelbaby, singing along to the songs.

Angelbaby, a computer-generated humanoid rapping rabbit, is owned by Hume, an L.A.-based metaverse tech and music company, which is now represented by CAA. Angelbaby’s single, “life is good,” which was released in November, hit more than 4 million streams on Spotify.

“At the end of the day, if the music wasn’t good for those artists, people would potentially point fingers and laugh,” Quist said. Looking at angelbaby, “you could tell that people were so engaged and enamored by the performance.”

The idea behind angelbaby came from Hume co-founders David Beiner and Jay Stolar. Stolar is a songwriter and producer who has worked with performers including Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato.

Hume created a backstory for angelbaby, a seven-foot rabbit from the year 3045, who is coping with losing the love of his life. Angelbaby has appeared on recordings with Grammy-winning producer Gino the Ghost and human music artists including boy band Prettymuch. The rabbit’s fans lean male and are in their 20s into their early 30s, Beiner said.

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“I think on the emotional level if you do it right, people like to feel like they’re part of a fantasy,” Beiner said. “People have always liked to escape.”

Much of the work for virtual artists comes from partnerships with brands, who want to tap the performers’ younger, digitally savvy followers.

For example, Miquela — whose character is a socially conscious digital influencer from Downey — was featured in a commercial for BMW‘s iX2 electric vehicle. The bulk of Miquela’s fans are under 35.

“When you think about the BMW vehicle that came out that’s 100% electric,” said Ridhima Ahuja Kahn, vice president of business development and strategic initiatives at Dapper Labs, the company behind Miquela. “That was something that was really compelling to her because it tied in with a lot of her goals around sustainability.”

But like human influencers, there can also be some controversy surrounding digital ones.

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Miquela’s ad with Calvin Klein showed her kissing model Bella Hadid, which some people online criticized as queer-baiting. Calvin Klein later said, “We sincerely regret any offense we caused.” Dapper Labs said it stands by the direction of the ad, which was to support all different types of backgrounds, genders and preferences.

“With virtual influencers, even they have drama too, just like any real-life influencer,” Ahuja Kahn said.

Many people worry that digital talent could take away human jobs. Last summer, writers and actors went on strike in part for more protections against the use of artificial intelligence.

“Anyone in the entertainment industry at large is very cognizant that a human resource of being on camera or being filmed or even writing a script or even editing a movie is being absorbed by what AI and technology can do,” said Elsa Ramo, a managing partner at Ramo Law PC.

But supporters of nonhuman talent say that the work can lead to more innovation, and, ultimately, jobs for the people who build the non-human influencers, although they acknowledge that AI will lead to more efficiency, which in turn will impact other jobs.

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An image of Zlu, a blue alien model.

An image of Zlu, a blue alien model.

(Zlu / Ilian Gazut)

Ilian Gazut created Zlu, a blue alien model represented by management firm IMG Models who has done work for fashion designers like Karl Lagerfeld. Gazut said that Zlu’s movements are based on his movements.

“There is always a human behind it,” Gazut said. “So in my case, I didn’t have a job and thanks to him, I have a job.”

The world of digital, nonhuman influencers continue to evolve. Miquela, who made her first post in 2016, was originally conceived as being perpetually 19, but recently, the character made the jump to her 20s. And prospective schools are noticing.

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“There are a few colleges who have reached out to us, so she’s looking at those and currently thinking about what the right fit for her would be and if college makes sense,” Ahuja Kahn said. “She’s been exploring what that path would look like for her.”

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California is making restaurants tell the truth about prices. Will it give you sticker shock?

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California is making restaurants tell the truth about prices. Will it give you sticker shock?

California restaurants finally have their answer: They, too, must comply with a new state law that bans unadvertised fees, surcharges and other costs tacked onto the end of the bill.

Starting July 1, restaurants will join thousands of other California businesses, including event ticket sellers, short-term rental apps, hotels and food delivery services, that are required to include all mandatory fees and charges in the prices they display or advertise.

The state attorney general’s office gave conflicting statements in the weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the measure into law last year, telling some news outlets that restaurants could continue to keep their current prices while listing any surcharges on their menus, and others that the surcharges had to be included in the prices themselves.

On Wednesday Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta’s office released a set of guidelines to clarify that issue and answer other questions about how businesses must comply with the new law. Bonta sponsored the measure, Senate Bill 478, along with its co-authors, state Sens. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) and Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley).

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For restaurants, that means it will no longer be enough to just list service charges and surcharges on a bill or a menu’s fine print. Instead, these charges must be included in the prices printed on the menu.

For example, a $20 mole enchilada at a restaurant that levies a 5% fee to cover employee health costs will have to be listed on the menu as a $21 mole enchilada. And a flier advertising a $10 lunch buffet at a restaurant that adds a mandatory 10% “service charge” will have to refer to the offer as an $11 lunch buffet.

In a statement, the Golden Gate Restaurant Assn. said Bonta’s guidelines “will create significant challenges for the restaurant industry moving forward.”

The association, which advocates for the restaurant industry, argues that by prohibiting the longtime practice of using service charges to increase staff pay or cover the cost of local ordinances — such as San Francisco’s requirement that businesses spend at least a minimum amount on healthcare services — the law will compound the problems faced by an already struggling industry.

“Diners will not pay less, instead they will see significant menu price increases, which we believe will further cause them to pull back on dining out,” the statement said. “Not only will restaurants struggle, but workers will lose hours and jobs.”

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With few exceptions, businesses of all sorts across California will not be able to advertise, display or offer a price for their goods or services that does not include all of the “mandatory fees or charges” other than government-imposed taxes or fees or reasonable shipping costs, according to the measure’s authors.

“Put simply, the price a Californian sees should be the price they pay,” Bonta’s office said in a news release.

The new law doesn’t dictate what companies charge for their goods or services. Businesses will still be able to set prices, but the posted price will need to match the full amount a customer will see on their final bill.

Though businesses can exclude taxes and shipping charges, handling fees must be included. In other words, actual postage or delivery charges can be excluded, while the cost of pulling an item off a shelf and taking it to a shipping company has to be included in its advertised price.

Separate fees for optional services or features do not need to be advertised. This could extend to a bevy of industries and services — for example, the amount an airline charges for a seat upgrade or checked bags.

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What about late fees or extra charges for customers who smoke in a hotel room? Because those charges can be avoided, they do not have to be advertised, according to the guidelines from Bonta’s office.

Businesses will not be allowed to skirt the law by advertising one price and then letting customers know that additional fees might be added later. A business can, however, list the full price of its product and provide customers a breakdown of all the fees that are included.

Bonta also offered some guidance for businesses that say they do not know up front what the final cost will be once their work is done. Such businesses “should wait to display a price until they know how much they will charge,” the guidelines say.

This could affect how live music fans interact with ticket sellers for concerts and other live events. The nonprofit watchdog Consumer Reports noted that hidden fees can increase the price of live-event tickets by 30% to 40%.

Live Nation Entertainment, parent company of ticketing giant Ticketmaster, said in a statement that it supported SB 478 and has already offered all-in pricing at some venues and festivals across the country. “Unfortunately, we routinely see resellers defy state laws requiring all-in pricing which confuses and harms fans, so we strongly encourage regulatory scrutiny to ensure compliance across the industry,” the company said.

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The Virginia-based Travel Technology Assn., a global network of online travel agents, said it views transparency as a top priority but opposed SB 478 and would rather see a uniform national standard for regulations on lodging prices.

“We take this position to create uniformity and certainty for lodging operators, travel technology companies, and most of all, travelers, who will have a better understanding of what is included in advertised prices for trips both in and out of their home state,” President and Chief Executive Laura Chadwick said in a statement.

The online travel company Expedia opposed the bill for similar reasons.

In response to the argument, Bonta said that California does not need to wait for federal action to ensure transparency for consumers. The practice of hiding mandatory charges, he said in a statement, “is deceptive and unfair to consumers wherever it occurs — not just in certain industries.”

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Ocean technology hub AltaSea blooms on San Pedro waterfront

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Ocean technology hub AltaSea blooms on San Pedro waterfront

A moon shot to make Southern California an international leader in the “blue economy” is taking shape in San Pedro as a $30-million renovation of three historic waterfront warehouses nears completion.

AltaSea at the Port of Los Angeles, as the complex is known, is home to sea-centered businesses such as the headquarters of explorer Robert Ballard, who located the wrecks of the Titanic and the German battleship Bismarck. His research vessel the Nautilus docks there, as does Pacific Alliance, a vessel for farming mussels far out at sea.

On barges docked on AltaSea’s wharf, scientists from USC, UCLA and Caltech are developing methods of reducing ocean carbon dioxide and technology to scrub ships’ exhaust stacks. Other tenants in the former warehouses include startup firms that are building a new generation of remote undersea cameras and 3-D printers to build parts for offshore wind, wave and solar farms.

Jenny Cornuelle Krusoe, executive vice president and COO of AltaSea at the Port of Los Angeles.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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An aerial view of the Captura barge, where crews monitor equipment used for pulling carbon dioxide from seawater.

An aerial view of the Captura, a barge at AltaSea where crews monitor equipment used for pulling carbon dioxide from seawater.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“AltaSea is education, research and business all working together,” said Jenny Krusoe, executive vice president and chief operating officer. The size and waterfront location, she added, make AltaSea “a unicorn piece of property that is basically made to be the mother ship for the blue economy.”

Mayor Karen Bass and others who played a part in AltaSea, including City Councilman Tim McOsker and Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka, are expected to officially open the facilities at a ceremony Wednesday.

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AltaSea is bringing new purpose to a previously moribund wharf that once played a rich part in the evolution of Southern California.

In the early 20th century, Los Angeles merchants and city leaders set out to capture a share of the increased global shipping trade expected to pass through the Panama Canal, a link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that opened in 1914. They created a municipal wharf on the waterfront of what has become the sprawling Port of Los Angeles, with a long stretch of warehouses where ships were loaded and unloaded into trains, carts and trucks by burly longshoremen.

The growth of containerized shipping after World War II gradually rendered City Dock No. 1 obsolete for moving goods, and the wharf was little used for decades. By 2011, advocates, including port officials, saw it for what it was: a choice 35-acre site for a research center and tech companies focused on sustainable uses of the world’s oceans.

A key part of the mission of the nonprofit enterprise is to create jobs with pioneering companies. Among them is the nonprofit AltaSeads Conservancy, the largest aquaculture seed bank in the United States. Like their terrestrial counterparts, aquaculture seed banks are meant to preserve genetic diversity in plant life for the future. AltaSeads is also advancing the use of kelp as an easily grown resource.

“It’s a super versatile crop,” said scientist Emily Aguirre of AltaSeads, that can provide food for humans and livestock while removing carbon from the atmosphere. “It can be also be used to fertilize terrestrial agriculture, and it’s fantastic because if you grow it out in the ocean, you’re not taking up any land.”

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Michael Marty Rivera and Emily Aguirre monitor varieties of kelp in storage tanks at AltaSeads

Michael Marty Rivera and Emily Aguirre of AltaSeads Conservancy monitor varieties of kelp in storage tanks.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Kelp is also a source of algae that cuts methane emissions from cows, Aguirre said, and has many other food applications, including reducing freezer burn in ice cream.

Eco Wave Power, an Israel-based company, is set to install the first U.S. onshore wave energy pilot station in the coming months on the port’s Main Channel, next to AltaSea. The system of floaters attaches directly to preexisting structures — like breakwaters, wharfs and jetties — and produces energy from the constant motion of the waves. Another AltaSea business, CorPower Ocean, uses buoys and hydraulic pressure for energy production.

 Rustom Jehangir, founder and CEO at Blue Robotics, demonstrates his BlueROV2

Rustom Jehangir, founder and CEO at Blue Robotics, demonstrates his BlueROV2, a high-performance remotely operated vehicle that can be used for inspections, research and adventuring.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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The figurative whale for AltaSea so far is Ballard, who set up shop at the aged docks several years ago and has captured public interest as a deep-sea explorer and scientific researcher. It’s his headquarters and home to his research and development.

AltaSea has an array of solar panels on the roof bigger than three football fields that generates 2.2 megawatts, enough to power 700 homes annually and more energy than the entire campus will need when it reaches full capacity.

BlueROV2, a high-performance remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that can be used for inspections, research, and adventuring,

The BlueROV2 vehicle.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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To fund the wharf’s redevelopment, AltaSea received $29 million from the state, Port of Los Angeles and private donors. The funds paid for construction, installation of the solar panels and the future creation of a park.

AltaSea is one of multiple projects that are part of a two-decade process to clean up the air and water at the port and turn unused docks, wharves and warehouses into places where more people will want to work or visit, port officials said.

“Bringing people to our waterfront has been a hallmark of the Port of Los Angeles for decades,” Seroka said in 2020, and recent investments “will really bring us to the next level.”

Before the pandemic, about 3 million people came to L.A.’s waterfront annually for recreation, a tally port leaders hope to see double in the years ahead. To smooth the path of new development catering to visitors, the Port of Los Angeles is investing about $1 billion in infrastructure improvements over 10 years, Seroka said. Private developers building AltaSea and other projects will invest an estimated $500 million.

Taylor Marchment shows off 3D concrete printing for offshore renewable energy

Taylor Marchment, the manufacturing R&D lead at RCAM Technologies, shows off 3-D concrete printing for offshore renewable energy.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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One of those projects, West Harbor, is a long-planned redevelopment of a 42-acre site that used to be home to Ports O’ Call, a kitschy imitation of a New England fishing village, built in the 1960s, that fell out of favor years ago and was razed in 2018.

Restaurants anchoring the dining, shopping and entertainment center will include Yamashiro, the second branch of a Japanese-themed Hollywood destination for locals and tourists. Another large restaurant will be Mexican-themed, with an over-water bar. There will also be a food hall and Bark Social, a membership off-leash dog park, bar and cafe. The complex is slated to open next year.

The waterfront developments represent improvements that San Pedro residents have been waiting decades to see, said Dustin Trani, whose family has been in the local restaurant business for nearly a century. Last year the chef opened Trani’s Dockside Station, a seafood restaurant situated between AltaSea and West Harbor, in part to capitalize on the expected influx of visitors.

“We’re on the cusp of a very big economic boom in this area that has not yet been seen,” Trani said.

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Netflix beefs up film ranks, hiring 'Bad Boys for Life' producer

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Netflix beefs up film ranks, hiring 'Bad Boys for Life' producer

“Bad Boys for Life” producer Doug Belgrad will join Netflix as its vice president of film as the streaming giant continues to beef up its movie ranks following a major shakeup.

A longtime Sony Pictures executive, Belgrad was involved in nearly all the movie studio’s live-action intellectual property, including the “Spider-Man” franchise, “Ghostbusters” and “Jumanji.” In 2016, after leaving Sony, he founded his own film and TV production and financing company called 2.0.

The Culver City-based firm has co-financed such movies as “Peter Rabbit,” “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” and “Zombieland: Double Tap,” all of which had Belgrad attached as an executive producer.

“As an executive and producer, I’ve been fortunate to work with many of the world’s most talented filmmakers and performers,” Belgrad said in a statement. “There is no better place to continue that work than Netflix, whose global reach and resources are unmatched.”

The move comes just months after Netflix hired producer Dan Lin to run the company’s film division, which has seen tremendous growth in production and release of original movies. Lin replaced Scott Stuber, the former Universal Pictures executive who guided Netflix’s movie slate for years, resulting in tent poles including “Red Notice” and Oscar winners such as “Roma.”

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In a statement, Lin praised Belgrad’s years of experience.

“We will be leaning on Doug’s great creative instincts, his eye for talent, and his deep relationships across the filmmaking and talent community,” he said.

After Belgrad moves to Netflix, his 2.0 production and financing company will be led by current chief financial officer Zack Conroy and Sophie Cassidy, executive vice president of production.

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