This is Episode 3 of Real Future, Fusion's new documentary series about technology and society. You can find previous episodes at realfuture.tv.
Recently, I've been listening to a lot of songs by a Japanese pop star named Hatsune Miku. Or Miku, for short.
You probably haven't heard of her. But by anyone's fame standard, Hatsune Miku is huge. Facebook page with 2.5 million likes? Check. Sold-out concerts with Lady Gaga at Madison Square Garden? Check. Collaborations with Pharrell, endorsement deals with Google and Toyota, and tens of millions of dollars in merchandise sales? Check, check, check.
In the past few years, Hatsune Miku — her name translates as "the first sound from the future" — has become a global music icon under America's nose. And her rise to fame is all the more remarkable for what Miku is not: that is to say, a human.
Miku is what's known as a “vocaloid” — a virtual singer created by voice synthesizing software, and illustrated with an anime-style CGI avatar. She was created in 2007 by a company called Crypton Future Media. According to them, Miku is 16 years old, 5 feet 2 inches tall, and weighs exactly 93 pounds, with aquamarine ponytails and giant eyes.
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We've seen animated musicians before — Gorillaz, for example, or the Tupac hologram that appeared at Coachella. But vocaloids are different. They're completely digitized, and essentially open-source. Anyone who has the right software can write a song for Miku, and program Miku's voice to sing it. According to Crypton Future Media, there are more than 100,000 Miku songs floating around on the internet, all produced by her legions of fans and uploaded to centralized sites. Fans retain the rights to the songs they create, but Crypton has made Miku’s image available under Creative Commons. Which is how we know that she looks like this:
Recently, Real Future correspondent Cara Santa Maria went to the LA Anime Expo to investigate the emerging vocaloid music scene. There, she met up with Misha, a young vocaloid fan from New York who created a vocaloid of her own, and was getting ready to debut it at a large meetup for vocaloid fans. Misha's vocaloid, named "Ruby," is one of the first vocaloids with an American accent—and getting her out into the world is a crucial step in trying to bring vocaloids to the U.S. pop mainstream.
Watch the episode above for more on Misha, Hatsune Miku, and the futuristic and fascinating vocaloid subculture.
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