That’s exactly what SM Entertainment, one of the biggest companies in K-pop, plans to do with its newest girl group aespa, set to debut next month. The act will include both human and virtual members.
Lee Soo-man, founder of SM Entertainment, made the announcement at Seoul’s World Cultural Industry Forum (WCIF) online event on Tuesday.
“This group is what I dreamed of as it projects a future world centered on celebrities and avatars, transcending boundaries between the real and virtual worlds,” Lee said.
“The members of the real and virtual worlds do not ask one another to do something in particular, but they interact and communicate as independent beings as they have AI brains. They talk to each other and help each other. They also become friends and share information. They do things in their respective worlds and share what they do."
According to a press release from SM, the group’s name, aespa (stylized, æspa), is derived from the words “avatar,” “experience,” and “aspect.”
SM has introduced three members named Karina, Winter, and NingNing with photos that appear to be set in a futuristic wonderland-like universe. It also released a teaser for the futuristic idea, with a video on Twitter of Karina talking to her virtual counterpart. The video also shows an additional idol, believed to be Aeri, the fourth member of the group who has yet to be officially revealed.
A date for the group’s debut has not been specified.
“Imagine an avatar of your favorite celebrity being created and being together with him/her, next to you. That avatar will be able to do things you cannot directly do with your favorite celebrity,” Lee said at the WCIF before introducing aespa.
Some were excited about the idea, impressed by the use of technology.
While other K-pop fans had the opposite reaction. They find the idea of fans “owning” their idols problematic, especially when aespa is made up of young women. Others, meanwhile, think virtual idols will only make fans — some dangerously obsessive — more far removed from reality.
There have been several instances where K-pop fans have gone overboard, sneaking into their idols’ apartments and even planning kidnapping attempts.
BTS member V spoke up about his own experience with intense fans. “In those private spaces, we don’t get to relax as much as we want to. So we were a bit uncomfortable. [And] to be frank with you, we don’t want you to do that. […] It's really scary,” he said during a live stream on the app V Live.
But aespa is not the first musical group to use virtual members. In 2018, California-based video game developer Riot Games unveiled the virtual K-pop quartet K/DA, with members based on characters from the League of Legends game. Similarly, British group Gorillaz was created in 1998, consisting of four animated members.
Founded in 1995, SM Entertainment is known for producing some of the biggest K-pop acts, such as Girls’ Generation and Super Junior. Aespa is the company’s first girl group since launching Red Velvet in 2014. The company has long been incorporating technology into its business. From the SMTOWN Theatre, which lets fans watch holographic concerts of their favorite artists, to adopting voice-separating tech that will let fans impersonate K-pop stars during karaoke.