Aespa, the brainchild of SM Entertainment, debuted to great anticipation on November 17, 2020. Will this new K-Pop group herald a new age of K entertainment or will it be a one-time novelty?
To date, the results have been sterling. Within a 7-month period of aespa's debut, the cyber-physical K-Pop group has already three music singles under its belt, with "Black Mamba" and the "Next Level" being chart-topping hit singles that amassed more than 100 million views on YouTube.
On the physical front, the human members of aespa are Karina (group leader), Winter (vocalist and dancer), Giselle (rapper and vocalist) and Ninging (vocalist). On the cyber front, there are four more virtual members, styled as the alter egos of the four human members, respectively named as ae-Karina, ae-Winter, ae-Giselle and ae-Ningning.
In other words, aespa's "ae" is meaningfully coined from the words "Avatar and Experience" and the name is phonetically related to the word "aspect" which refers to a side or part of something. Thus, aespa members have both physical and virtual aspects, providing a multi-dimensional entertainment experience via both humans and their avatars.
To a certain extent, the K-Pop industry cautiously see "virtualization", or more specifically "avatarization", as a way to extend engagement with fan bases beyond the physical form, time and energy limits of human idols. Avatars can engage fans tirelessly and ubiquitously, from anywhere in virtual media on the Internet to physical merchandise which fans can purchase and bring home.
Thus, the concept of aespa is still a play at avatarization, rather than pure virtualization. Another avatarization project is BT21 — the highly successful collaborative project between LINE FRIENDS and BTS. Each BT21 character symbolizes and represents a BTS idol (with each idol highly involved in the design and creation process). Beyond the physical engagement of BTS, engagement with BTS Army can be extended through delighful stories and content involving BT21 avatars.
Barely three months after the debut of aespa, another "virtually-never-done-before" K-Pop group emerged — Eternity. Eternity is a fitting name for the nascent K-Pop group, considering that all the group members are non-physical. and thus, are capable of existing for an eternity They were entirely born of deep-fake algorithms and artificial intelligence technologies developed by South Korean tech firm Pulse9.
Nonetheless, although born of AI, these virtual idols perform realistically, exhibit different personalities and portray natural-looking expressions like humans. To the untrained eye, Eternity's AI idols can almost seem real and like any K-Pop group, perform in music videos, work as influencers and appear in brand endorsements.
The right-time, right-place conclusion has to apply here. The confluence of various factors and events — the deep advances in AI, advent of 5G and the acceleration of digitalization due to the Covid-19 pandemic — has hastened the pace for innovation and extreme experimentation.
The wallets and clicks of the ardent fan base will shape the evolution of such cyber-physical technological movement. As fans, we are grateful witnesses to these new forms of entertainment, thanks to the relentless media innovation by the ruthlessly competitive K-Pop industry.