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

  • 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.

In this article

    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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