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Future of entertainment? Avatars could be K-pop's next superstars

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Key Points
  • SM Entertainment's newest pop group æspa comprises four real-life members – Karina, Winter, Ning Ning, and Giselle – and their corresponding virtual counterparts.
  • Lee Soo-man, founder and chairman of SM Entertainment which is behind the K-pop group, said æspa is "the beginning of the future of entertainment," where real-life idols could co-exist with virtual avatars.
  • But experts caution that æspa's virtual approach could create problems like hypersexualization and risks for mental health and personal privacy.
File photo showing autographs of recording artists managed by SM Entertainment which adorn a checkout counter at the company's SMTown entertainment complex in Seoul, South Korea, on Oct. 2, 2015.
SeongJoon Cho | Bloomberg | Getty Images

One of South Korea's latest girl bands has set its sights on the "future of entertainment," launching its first single with both real-life members and their avatars.

æspa comprises four real-life Korean pop stars – Karina, Winter, Ning Ning, and Giselle – together with their corresponding virtual counterparts. They debuted on Nov. 17 with their first track, "Black Mamba."

SM Entertainment's latest pop group is hoping these artificially intelligent (A.I.) virtual idols may become your next best friend. 

At this year's World Cultural Industry Forum, SM founder and chairman Lee Soo-man called æspa "the beginning of the future of entertainment," envisioning a world of real-life idols co-existing with virtual avatars who can spend time with fans in ways that human stars cannot.

The name æspa refers to "Avatar x Experience" and "aspect," and fans can anticipate "experiencing a new world via the encounter of the 'avatar,' your other self," the company said in a tweet.

"In the world of celebrities, big data-driven robots will play a significant role," SM's founder said. "Most importantly, the development of A.I. technology will enable customized avatars to fit into peoples' lives ... Like a living person, like a friend."

Fans will also get to generate a customized avatar and interact with each other in a "supermassive virtual world," he added, after playing a teaser suggesting this would occur via a smartphone application called SYNK.

Endless possibilities

To experts on South Korean pop culture, the possibilities for æspa are endless.  

When real idols get sick or burnt out due to tough schedules, the virtual idols can perform and interact with fans on their behalf while they recuperate, said Lee Hye-jin, a clinical assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in the University of Southern California (USC).

"I think what's unique here is the amount of penetration into people's everyday lives," said Professor James Patrick Williams, a cultural sociologist and social psychologist at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

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"This is making massively multiplayer online music worlds," he added, borrowing the gaming term MMORPG, or massively multiplayer online role-playing game, to illustrate how the company is trying to create a virtual world where multiple users can role-play and interact simultaneously.

By using its mobile app to gather large volumes of information, Williams speculated SM may study fans' online interactions to anticipate their needs and preferences, allowing the avatars to curate music suggestions or even provide emotional chat support.

Social boundaries, mental health

However, experts have also raised concerns about æspa's virtual approach, which some say could create problems like hypersexualization and risks for mental health and personal privacy.

One such risk involves æspa's images being manipulated and transposed onto adult actors' faces in a practice called deepfake pornography, said Alberto Todeschini, a lecturer in artificial intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Deepfake is a form of technology that employs A.I. and machine learning software to manipulate videos, images and audio that can imitate a person's likeness and create a false narrative.

This could create a problematic set of relationships back when you meet the real celebrity that you may forget what the boundaries are.
Patrick Williams
Nanyang Technological University

"People may feel less guilty using their images for these purposes and because these are virtual idols, they are not legally protected from digital sex crimes or sexual harassment," explained Lee, the USC professor.

She also said that æspa's real and virtual personas are so intertwined that it could affect the real-life members' mental health.

Fans may also compare real-life members to their eternally youthful, human error-free virtual counterparts, she said, which may worsen existing pressures on idols to be perfect in looks and talent.

Additionally, æspa's concept could become a "double-edged sword" with fans' constant access to the avatars as a "stand-in" for their human idols, said Williams.

"This could create a problematic set of relationships back when you meet the real celebrity that you may forget what the boundaries are," he added.

Williams also raised concerns over how SM Entertainment will balance the burden of social responsibility with encouraging fans to build a close relationship with the K-pop band's real-life and virtual members.

æspa's fans – many of whom are still minors – may grow to confide in these avatars with concerning information like suicidal thoughts, he said, suggesting SM Entertainment may enter a bind over how to handle such sensitive issues.

Are A.I.-driven idols here to stay?

æspa's AI-led venture is just another step in K-pop's evolution, and the coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated the introduction of digitally mediated projects that have been in the pipeline for some time, said Williams.

With Covid-19 canceling live shows and meetings with fans, K-pop agencies like SM saw resounding success with livestreaming virtual concerts, using holograms and computer graphics to bring images to life for an immersive concert experience.

K-pop celebrities also got creative on social media. From livestreaming cooking shows to music jamming sessions, fans stuck at home anywhere in the world could spend time with their idols and were delighted to get unprecedented access to the stars' everyday lives.

In a way, æspa's AI-centered concept could not have been timelier.

However, experts warn that it remains to be seen whether their success will be dampened when the pandemic eases and live events return.

"æspa is a test … (SM Entertainment is) going to play around with how much ae-Karina is a proxy for (the real-life) Karina... They will then start to roll out other kinds of avatars that may not even correspond to a real person," Williams said.

"There is a lot of evidence in gaming and entertainment that people invest significantly in virtual 'others,'" he added.

However, Lee from USC was a little more skeptical: "Technology is great — it's great if you can use technology to enhance pleasure, but I feel like SM in a way (has) kind of lost what makes K-pop pleasurable."

K-pop fans love celebrities not just because of the music or the artistes' performances, but also because of their humanity, relatability and fallibility, the professor said.

"One thing that Covid-19 has taught us is that human beings crave relationships, human contact, and human connection more than ever. And that's something technology cannot necessarily provide," she added.