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[Herald Interview] How virtual idol singers took MBC's 'Show! Music Core' by storm

Netmarble masterminds behind Mave: aspire to open up an ocean of possibility in K-pop with virtual humans

March 13, 2023 - 14:56 By Choi Ji-won
Metaverse girl group MAVE: (Metaverse Entertainment)

It's not often the case that a rookie K-pop group gets a second chance to appear on a major TV music show with its debut song. But Mave:, a virtual girl group with four AI-generated singers, made it happen.

Mave:, short for "Make New Wave," debuted on Jan. 25 with its first single album "Pandora's Box." Jointly launched by game operator Netmarble and IT firm Kakao Entertainment, the group is housed under Netmarble affiliate Metaverse Entertainment.

Mave:'s first appearance on MBC's "Show! Music Core" in January was a sensation. The YouTube video of the performance racked up the highest views on the platform among all artists on the program aired in January, leading to the group's return to the show three weeks later.

From their tightly synchronized group dances to the facial expressions, Mave: members put on performances that were on par with its human counterparts.

The technical brilliance behind Mave: was what had sparked awe among the public, with some even noting that they were on the verge of overcoming the "uncanny valley" -- a term referring to the uncomfortable feeling one gets seeing something almost humanlike but not completely.

Speaking with The Korea Herald during a recent interview, Metaverse Entertainment's technical director, Kang Sung-ku, and art director Ahn Sung-won, found the reason behind Mave:'s success in the balance of technology and strategy.

"Usually, it's the companies with the technology that attempts to create a virtual idol themselves. But this time, we acknowledged the fact that we had to join hands with a firm that has enough experience in successfully launching idols," Kang said.

Netmarble's subsidiary Metaverse Entertainment's technical director Kang Sung-ku (left) and art director Ahn Sung-won (Metaverse Entertainment)

In 2021, Kakao Entertainment invested 12 billion won ($9 million) into Metaverse Entertainment, gaining a 40 percent share of the Netmarble subsidiary. A multilabel company with seasoned experience in management, Kakao took the helm of shaping Mave: as singers that could survive inside the highly competitive world of K-pop.

Kang, with his team of technicians, handled the technical mastery to blow life into Mave:, while Ahn built the universe in which Mave: would flourish.

According to Kang, the key technology was the real-time rendering, which enabled them to reduce the time used in making the computer graphics. Less time meant less cost, which made it possible for the team to add more details that made the avatars move more naturally like a human.

Adding the story to the artificial humans was all Ahn.

Mave: follows a world-building narrative. The four members -- Siu, Zeta, Tyra and Marty -- are originally from a city in the future, called Idypia, where emotions no longer exist. The girls then crash-land into the real world where they turn into K-pop singers.

"While other existing idols usually take up different concepts and styles with every album, as Mave: is a virtual group, we felt it was necessary to build a narrative from the start," Ahn explained, adding, "It seemed like a fun idea to unravel the metaverse universe by melding the sci-fi elements of the story."

Speaking to The Korea Herald a month after Mave:'s debut, the two directors said they were more than satisfied with how Mave: turned out. They also expressed their gratitude to fans who supported the work of the engineers and staff behind the quartet.

One comment below Mave:'s music show video that received over 2,000 likes read, "Usually the focus with K-pop groups solely lies on the group and not on the producers, choreographers or the people who even come up with the concepts. With Mave: everyone stands in the limelight. I really like that."

Kang said the team still had much room to improve.

"We didn't launch Mave: with our technology all set. If we were to do that, we'd never have been able to start. Our initial goal was to release the first album," he said.

The plan itself is to continue improving along with Mave:. In an introductory video for themselves posted online, Mave: said they aspired to become a group that could last for 100 years. For the gaming company, the intellectual property of the four avatars has opened up the gates of opportunities for them.

Metaverse girl group MAVE: (Metaverse Entertainment)

Metaverse Entertainment already has in the works new content to roll out both online and inside the metaverse space -- a new platform Netmarble F&C plans to launch in the future.

"We cannot share much details right now, but we can tell you that we'll be introducing various content that only virtual idols can carry out," Ahn said, adding a virtual concert inside the metaverse platform is one of them.

The group is already in the process of gearing up for their next album.

And just as Mave: had opened up a new future for them, Ahn and Kang anticipated its virtual singers would pave the way for a new niche market in the K-pop industry.

"We affectionately call Mave: the fifth-generation idol because we believe its strength lies in fields that the existing human idols are not able to venture into," Kang said. "And we believe that it's our role to define what the new possibility is."

Ahn also sought to make assurances to fans that Mave: does not intend to compete with human idols, a concern that many had expressed while witnessing Mave:'s success.

"We hope that Mave:, just like its name, could make a new wave and that we could lead a new market where various artists could discover new opportunities," the art director said.