Although the concept is unique in the K-pop scene, youths have expressed their concerns with the potential dangers of technology.
The K-pop industry sees troupes of new K-pop groups debuting each year. 2020 is no different, with fans welcoming new groups such as TREASURE, Cravity and Weeekly, just to name a few.
But one girl group in particular caught the internet’s attention back in November when they were unveiled by SM Entertainment: aespa.
Besides being the first girl group from the company in seven years (Red Velvet debuted in 2014), the group is also the first to rely heavily on Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Combining the words ‘avatars’, ‘experience’ and ‘aspect’ in their name, the futuristic concept of the group features four human members – Winter, Karina, NingNing and Giselles – and a virtual version of themselves, or æ-aespa.
But the news of aespa came with mixed reactions, as netizens were quick to point out both the good and potentially negative consequences of the use of virtual avatars.
We spoke to some youths to find out what they thought about the technologically-infused concept of the new girl group.
With the continued digitalisation of K-pop to connect with fans from all around the world, youths felt that the introduction of avatars into aespa’s concept is just another advancement in technology for the industry.
19-year-old student Yuxuan, who has been a fan of K-pop for almost six years, shared that she was not surprised when aespa’s group concept was first announced.
“Hologram musicals and concerts at SMTOWN@Coexartium theatre (in South Korea) already exist, so I am not surprised that their next step is to integrate it into an actual permanent group concept,” she said.
Earlier this year, SM Entertainment hosted the virtual Beyond LIVE concert series, which was the first to combine the use of augmented reality, three-dimensional graphics and interactive features.
Yuxuan believes that technologies like AI and holograms can help personalise the experience for fans to interact with their idols from home.
She added that she was open to these changes in K-pop especially for events like fan meetings that are currently held via video calls during the pandemic.
19-year-old undergraduate Andrea, who has been a fan of K-pop since 2015, felt that the use of virtual avatars was bound to happen, given the international reception of the genre in recent years.
She felt virtual avatars are suited to the present internet culture that values convenience, which can help the genre stay competitive when reaching out to an international audience.
“I think fans would be receptive to aespa’s concept because it is like another representation of your idol… So if it’s another version of your idol that you like, I think fans would like it still,” she added, citing the successful use of avatars for BTS’ Tiny Tan and BT21 series.
With the explosion in popularity of K-pop in recent years, the Hallyu wave has crossed borders to reach fans from all around the world. Technology has played an important role to help spread the word across various platforms.
The youths we spoke to mentioned virtual girl group K/DA – from the company behind League of Legends – as an example of how the use of avatars was successful in transcending augmented reality while opening the world of K-pop to new audiences.
With the success of K/DA as an example, the youths believe that the strong emphasis on technology in aespa’s concept opens up opportunities for the group to be adapted into different mediums like video games and virtual concerts using their avatars.
For 18-year-old student Silvia, who has been a fan of K-pop for four years and is actively involved in various fan communities, she is optimistic that aespa will be a success because of its novelty and revenue-generating potential.
While fans will continue purchasing physical merchandise in support of their idols, Silvia felt that they will also be willing to spend money on items like game skins and avatars, even if it is virtual.
“Fans are fans. At the end of the day, they would spend whatever money they have on the idols that they love, myself included,” she said candidly.
It is also not uncommon for K-pop fans to hear about the hectic back-to-back schedules of their idols that can sometimes take a toll on their health.
Yuxuan believes that aespa’s avatars can open opportunities for collaborations between their counterparts during performances where the virtual avatars are present in place of the human members so that they can be at two places at once.
This view was similarly echoed by SM Entertainment’s founder Lee Soo Man in his vision during the recent 2020 World Cultural Industry Forum, where he hinted strongly at a collaboration between the human members and virtual avatars.
While most of the youth we spoke to were supportive of aespa’s virtual avatars, there were also concerns about the dangers of sasaengs, or obsessive fans, that could worsen with the use of virtual avatars.
“The avatars might encourage [the idea of] possessing them as their own personal belonging – like ‘Oh, the avatar is my belonging, I have to take her home’ – so there is a possibility of fans being so deluded to a point that it might reflect in their behaviours in real life,” said Andrea.
Although a similar view was criticised online as being far-fetched, Andrea believes that the concern from the K-pop community is reasonable given the prevalence of obsessive fans that has caused concern among fans for their idol’s wellbeing.
Most famously known was the kidnap attempt of Taeyeon, the leader of Girls’ Generation, onstage. Although she was unharmed, it was a significant incident that highlighted the lengths sasaengs would go just to meet their idols.
With the group having newly-debuted, the youths felt that only time will tell if the use of virtual avatars is truly dangerous. They also believe that the extent to how the idol-fan boundary is blurred is also dependent on how the avatars are viewed.
Yuxuan shared that she views both versions differently and is able to tell them apart from reality and fiction.
“It’s like meeting your twin with the same name… It kind of just feels like you’re meeting a friend who looks like you and dresses like you. To me, they don’t really look similar and I can’t really point out immediately that [æ-Karina] is Karina.” she said.
On the other hand, Silvia said: “The avatars are still based on the idols and the avatars still adopt the name of the idols… If something is done against the avatars, it is also being done against the idols.”
The virtual avatars are open to the possibility of problematic use such as pornographic manipulation, said a researcher on K-pop.
The lack of restrictions online has also raised questions from experts about the liability of an online character should it perform an action that is immoral or illegal.
On her concerns towards how the avatar might be misused, Silvia shared her concerns over the potential issues surrounding ethics, cyber attacks and deepfake pornography.
She said: “Idols are already put on a pedestal as someone we can look up to or worship which I find really creepy. Reducing them to avatars for consumption or for fans to have fun or pay for doesn’t seem humane because these are actual people with actual feelings.”
“The avatars might be prone to cyber attacks like deepfakes which is a serious issue and I’m worried about how the girls will handle the issue of the avatars being handled.”
Having just debuted a few weeks ago, aespa’s debut and unique concept has garnered much anticipation for how the avatars will be used and what the company’s plans are for the group’s future.
The youths we spoke to hoped that clear boundaries between fan and idol are enforced strongly by SM Entertainment to ensure that none of the technology or the members are exploited for nefarious reasons.
Silvia is confident that fans will be around to show their support for the members should their safety or well-being be violated.
“Fans for the longest time have been defensive when it comes to their idol. They would use petitions or write to companies if they realise that their idols are being mistreated… I have no doubt that fans of aespa would write to SM if their avatars are being misused,” she said.
Regardless, aespa’s unique group concept signals a promising future in the use of technology with K-pop and fans have shared their excitement towards future releases from aespa.
Silvia said: “I really want them to blow my mind. Seeing how their debut song is so well received, I can see them doing music concepts that haven’t been done before while using their virtual AI aspect.”
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