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Friday, June 21, 2024

Anyone Can Be a VTuber. Here's How to Get Started

Kizuna AI plays games, cooks, and even answers her viewers' questions. She sings, too, moonlighting as a pop star with millions of views on her music video. Kizuna AI is like any other influencer on YouTube, except she's not real. She's a virtual influencer.

But it's not strictly accurate to say she's a standalone, completely digital entity born from the chaos of the internet. Kizuna AI is voiced by a human actress and produced by a character designer, 3D modeler, and an anonymous team.

She's made. And since Kizuna AI's debut and subsequent ascendancy, others have followed in her footsteps—be that a virtual avatar for streaming as a career, hobby, or way of socializing. VTubers is short for Virtual YouTubers, but encompasses Twitch streamers who use a virtual avatar as well. Everybody can be Kizuna AI now, and there's countless ways of doing so. If you're looking for where to begin, many existing VTubers recommend starting from a basic and almost-free (or as low-cost as possible) way.

Kyrie is a relatively new VTuber. We met through the Final Fantasy XIV scene, after I interviewed her for another article on a community-made, in-game aquarium with every displayable fish. (It's called the Eorzean Aquarium. Check it out, FFXIV players.) She's practical and matter-of-fact, and—having just gone through the ropes of setting up an avatar—generous in advice.

Kyrie started streaming in January 2022, and began her VTuber journey after having to buy a work-from-home setup. "I figured I might as well do something fun with it." Kyrie says. "I have some history in content creation. I've been involved in college radio, podcasts, and shoutcasting after that, as well as cosplay. But this was the first time that I became the central personality." It also helps that Kyrie has a massive Steam library, and streaming provides an excuse to dive into her backlog. Two birds, one stone.

With the help of an artist friend, Kyrie created her 3D character model, Kyrie Overdrive, through the free software called VRoid. Kyrie's character is based on her Final Fantasy XIV character, and Saga made the initial character model draft as a birthday gift for Kyrie. The two then spent around three months refining it together, diving into Booth.pm and testing different character assets. Booth.pm, Kyrie notes, is a very useful site that allows her to get clothes and swap outfits frequently. A Live2D model—software that can animate a 2D model—on the other hand, would require an artist to draw an outfit every time Kyrie wants a wardrobe change.

What You Need to Get Started

VRoid is the software that Fofamit, a long-time VTuber who started streaming even before the term VTuber existed, recommends for beginners as well. Fofamit runs an informative YouTube channel on everything virtual streaming, and she initially got into the scene because of the virtual space's potential. "If I wanted to spend time exploring New York on one stream I could. If I wanted to have a chill time with a stream in a comfy space I could," Fofamit says. "If I wanted to make it so there could be live interaction with an audience, it could all be possible."

Her first model was a generic one bought off of Booth.pm for $50. Booth.pm, in addition to character assets, comes with ready-made models whom anyone can buy and use. It's a fairly affordable and easy option for beginners. Of course, the tradeoff is that your model won't be unique, and other users who purchased the model can also stream with it. Like Fofamit, however, you can edit the model through Blender, a 3D modeling software.

But a more DIY setup doesn't mean you can't have fun with your streaming identity. Jams, a person who works at itemLabel by day and streams as a VTuber by night, created Jams—an extraterrestrial lifeform loose on Earth. Jams has a lore video, which dives into his character's mission to learn more about humankind via Twitch.

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I was drawn to Jams' unique retro video game aesthetic, a different style from the Live2D models popularly used. It turns out Jams made it completely from scratch from a blend of VRoid, beginner Blender skills, and "every Adobe product," he says. He credits Kaniegg for inspiring him, and initially aimed for a 90's PSX aesthetic. Jams' design was a gradual process that evolved over time, and each iteration took around two to four weeks. For those who want complete control over their streamer identity, and perhaps improve their 3D modeling skills in Blender along the way, Jams' slow and organic method is one path. It is time-consuming, Jams notes, but he couldn't justify spending hundreds of dollars on a commissioned model for a relatively new hobby.

Of course, creating the virtual avatar is the fun creative part. The technical parts of streaming with the virtual avatar, like what equipment is needed and what the costs are, is another side of the hobby.

You don’t need terribly expensive hardware to get started. If you're already a gamer and can play AAA modern-day games on your PC, your specs are more than enough. For example, Kyrie's PC specs are Nvidia GeForce GTS 1070, Intel Core i7 CPU, and 16-GB RAM. So before you go all out and hunt for the newest Nvidia card, try streaming on whatever PC you have first.

In addition to a PC, you'll need a webcam and software for facial tracking so your model's facial expression can reflect yours. Fofamit recommends the free facial tracking software VSeeFace and a standard webcam like the Logitech C920, which retails for around $60. Kyrie also uses VSeeFace and a Logitech C922 webcam. She estimates that in total, she's spent around $200 to $300 to get started, which includes the webcam, a ring light, and peripherals like a shield for her mic. Jams—to no surprise—also has VSeeFace set up, but utilizes a hand-tracking device called Leap Motion as well.

Decide Whether Streaming Is For You, First

Throughout discussions with all three VTubers, they emphasize that making a character model and getting equipment is only one facet. VTubing is still a personality-driven activity, one people need to figure out whether they enjoy doing or not. Streaming—whether that be playing games or interacting with viewers—isn't for everyone.

"My advice is to try streaming first. People get into VTubing before they even do a test stream. I've seen a lot of people plonk down the hundreds and thousands of USD for a full model and rig setup, only to stop streaming two months later because they realized they didn't like streaming, or burned out quickly," Kyrie says.

Fofamit also emphasizes the content creator side of VTubing and cautions beginners on getting too wrapped up in rigs and the technical side. "Honestly I always like to preface that having a super fancy setup doesn’t set you up for success. I think a lot of people get caught up in how much money or what things they need to buy, when those things can help, but are mostly irrelevant when it comes to success as a content creator," Fofamit says.

Jams agrees with Fofamit and Kyrie, and encourages those interested to not be afraid of all the bells and whistles—financial or otherwise—seemingly attached to VTubing. "I think it's very important to not let a limited skillset or budget discourage you from pursuing VTubing, or any other creative hobby for that matter," Jams says.

"Way more important than having the best looking avatar with the most physics and decorations is first asking why you want to pursue VTubing, and then digging deep in yourself and finding what's unique and interesting about you that you want to share with the world," Jams continues. "Not only will VTubing be 100 times more enjoyable, but you'll also attract an audience and build a community that's in line with your interests."

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