“I will never have to work out again!” Twitch streamer Imane “Pokimane” Anys said on her stream Sunday. She zoomed the camera out to show her full form: waved brown hair, enormous teak eyes, and a cropped purple top showing a flat tummy. Anime as hell, all of it.
In lieu of her face, Anys had commissioned a 3D anime model of herself that tracked her words and movements, enacting them live. Anys was scrolling through Reddit and chatting with viewers, as usual, when one asked what in God’s name was going on. “Usually I stream with a cam,” said Anys matter-of-factly. “Sometimes if I don’t want to use a cam, maybe I’ll just use this! Nyah!” Her 3D model’s eyes closed, looking like a complacent cat’s.
Anys was debuting “Vtuber Pokimane,” adopting a form popularized by the Vtuber communities of YouTube, Twitch, and other video-based platforms. Technologically adept operators use face- and voice-tracking systems to dance, sing, chat, play games, and emote like any other online personality—only through these 2D or 3D anime avatars. Their mouths move as they talk; their eyes widen with curiosity and narrow with anger. (Anys tested her hand-tracking tech by successfully giving the middle finger.) Often the operators are anonymous, their voices modulated onto kawaii frequencies.
To get started, Vtubers commission virtual, interactive models with a variety of animations and facial expressions. Then they map their facial expressions and mouth and body movements, using a camera along with motion capture and voice analysis software. (Anys said she used Luppet, body-tracking software from a Japan-based company.) Around 10,000 of these channels exist globally across YouTube, Twitch, Bilibili, Weido, Niconico, and other video sites; there’s even a Vtuber agency called HoloLive that represents over 50 anime models. In 2019, the number of combined views on Vtuber channels increased by 99 percent, according to AI firm Hyprsense.
Kizuna AI, who has millions of subscribers on YouTube, claims to be the first virtual YouTuber. With thigh-high socks and an oversized pink bow, Kizuna, who started her channel in 2016, is voiced by a human Japanese actress. (For effect, she tells viewers she’s an artificial intelligence.) Fans speculate that her underlying software is the same as that used by virtual, 3D pop stars voiced by synthesizer software—known as Vocaloids—like Hatsune Miku. On YouTube, Kizuna does the same things any other online personality might: plays the horror game Inside, draws cat pictures, debates controversial topics, chats with fans. Now, she’s a culture ambassador for the Japan National Tourism Organization and has appeared in commercials.
In line with trends in anime, some more popular Vtuber channels have strong lewd undertones. Models often boast exaggerated anatomies (with exaggerated “jiggle” physics). Earlier this year, Projekt Melody, who describes herself as “the first … 3D-rendered hentai camgirl”, launched her Chaturbate stream, where she networks her fans’ donations to an internet-connected vibrator. In March, Twitch welcomed her with immediate Partner status, demonstrating the streaming site’s full buy-in on the trend.
Absurdist streams are massively popular, too. A blonde, Sherlock Holmes–looking anime chick named Watson Amelia debuted on YouTube over the weekend with 474,000 views. Over 45,000 live viewers tuned in for shark-girl Gawr Gura’s debut stream Sunday. “You’ve heard of Atlantis?” she asks viewers, wearing a shark costume. “Have you been? Shaaaaaark!” Later, she sings karaoke. Both performers are part of Hololive EN, the English-language branch of the agency.
“Like anime, it once started as a very niche thing and has been slowly growing,” says Vtuber Iron Mouse, a pink-haired girl with devil horns who’s been streaming since 2018. “I think it will only get better and more exciting from here. The more the merrier, I say!”
While Vtubers tend to express themselves with anime mannerisms, there are real, relatable people behind the waifus. The medium offers a release from their physical appearances‚ which, for women, can be heavily scrutinized online. “People will feel more free to be themselves,” says Bunny_Gif, a Vtuber with bunny ears. “Vtubing gives you a whole bunch of freedom that normal streams don’t. You can express yourself so differently with an avatar,” she says. You can also be more honest. To 250 viewers yesterday morning, Vtuber Natsumi_Moe described how her tough parents put a lot of pressure on her college and career choices IRL. It was decidedly confessional. When a viewer asked where she’s from, she laughed: “I’m from online,” she said. “From Google Chrome.”
Privacy is something that Anys says influenced her decision to go virtual. “I think it’s a really cool thing, and I think a lot of female streamers would like to use it when they don’t want to use a cam,” she says, adding that men might like it, too. Anys’ enormous popularity and wide appeal has made her a honeypot for mostly unwarranted drama. And being “on” for audiences of thousands—pretty, charismatic, witty, good at games—is massively draining for anyone after four to six hours. It’s no wonder she’s looking for lower-key ways to engage with fans online.
And it may end up catching on more broadly. Fellow streamer Lily “LilyPichu” Ki said on Twitter that she’ll do the same thing: “I’m going to use a cute anime avatar to represent me on no-cam days,” she says, adding that she’s “not really a ‘vtuber.’ i'm still me! idk what to call that.”
It’s a little unusual for established personalities to move behind the anime mask. On stream, Anys said she was nervous that the diehard Vtube community would think she’s cashing in on a trend. Yet several established Vtubers welcomed her. “There are so many V-TUBERS that are supportive and happy you are able to stream in a comfy way,” V-Tuber Bunny_Gif wrote to Anys on Twitter. Says another, who goes by Silvervale: “There are so many benefits and I hope it helps you be a lot comfier!”
Bunny_GIF says that, personally, she likes not putting on makeup or doing her hair. She can stream in her PJs. “I don’t have to worry about unflattering angles when I’m an anime avatar,” she says.