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Behind the 540 Dancing Robots: Meet Alpha 1S

The dancing robots were the stars of the night at the CCTV Spring Festival Gala this year. Singer Sun Nan performed with a total of 540 robots at the Guangzhou Gala venue. This is the story behind the act; meet China’s first humanoid robot Alpha 1S.

Manya Koetse

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Dancing robots were the stars of the night at the CCTV Spring Festival Gala this year. Singer Sun Nan performed with a total of 540 robots at the Guangzhou Gala venue. Read about the background of the act and meet China’s first humanoid robot Alpha 1S.

The Alpha 1S became famous overnight after its impressive performance at the   CCTV Gala. It was a case of “ten years of practice for one minute on stage” (“台上一分钟,台下十年功”), says the Tech reporter at China’s news platform Tencent. They spoke with the technical staff behind the robots after the Gala. Chinese Mandopop singer Sun Nan (孙楠) sang the song “Going to the Top” (冲向巅峰) as 540 robots were dancing around him, all doing exact same movements at the exact same time.

Meet Alpha

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The robot is China’s first humanoid smart robot. It belongs to the Alpha robot family (阿尔法家族) and carries the name Alpha 1S. It is a truly made-in-China product, developed by Chinese tech experts and locally produced. The creators of Alpha 1S, Chinese company UBTech (圳市优必选科技有限公司) spent five years and over 50 million RMB (7.6 million US$) to produce their star robot, designed for families. In many respects, Alpha 1S is a pioneering work, especially when it comes to the patented computer system at its core. According to Tencent, its technique “surpasses that of American, European, Japanese and Korean robots.”

One of the reasons why Alpha has such good dancing skills is because it has 16 different joints, giving the robot the freedom to move like a human.

alpha2whatsonweibo.com

His eyes are flickering blue-ray LEDs with sensors. On the evening of the Gala performance, all robots were numbered so that technical staff could control the twinkling of the eyes in every single robot.

The robot’s software is compatible with both Android and IOS mobile systems, and can also be linked to a computer. Users can edit the robot’s programme themselves, which is also possible for people with little knowledge of robots or programming. Even more awesome: you can preview the robot’s movements in a 3D visualisation on the computer, making it easy to edit and change its movements after seeing them on screen. With the Alpha app, it is also possible for owners to programme movements by playing around with their robot; it will then remember the movement sequence. This means you can let the robot dance in whatever way you want (- we cannot get over how cool this is).

The Gala performance

On the night of the Spring Gala, a total of 540 Alpha robots were lined up in a military square-shaped formation, standing in four groups of 9 x 15 robots. The technical staff had programmed the robots with 12 sets of dance steps, all of its movements in line with the rhythm of Sun Nan’s “Going to the Top” and completely in-sync – a Guinness Record.

robotformation

According to Tencent, Alpha 1S was only invited to take part in the Spring Gala one month before Chinese New Year, letting the technical staff, a team of 36 experts, work day and night for an impeccable Gala performance.

alpha3whatsonweibo

In order for the performance to go smoothly, the staff also had to deal with two problems. The first was that the robot originally could only have a maximum distance of 50 meter to the control desk. This distance needed to be bigger for the great Gala venue, for which experts changed the transmitter, making it possible to control the 540 robots within a range of 5000 meter.

Another risk was that colliding robots would result in a possibly disastrous domino effect. But for the camera to properly capture the perfect formation of robots, they still had to be lined up near to each other. The LED lights in the robot’s eyes with sensor were thus programmed to be ultrasensitive to distance and to stay within a 0.6 m x 0.6 m distance.

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Every millisecond of the performance was tested in great detail and practised over and over again to make sure nothing could go wrong on Sunday night, February 6th, during the live show of the Gala.

China’s future

Alpha 1S is China’s first programmable, interactive and affordable robot meant for family entertainment. The features of Alpha 1S are promising and show that much more will be possible in the near future. Alpha’s brother Alpha 2 will be less affordable (around 8000 US$), but can already do much more than dancing; this robot can act as a tutor, translation, personal assistant and help doing household tasks.

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Weibo netizens praised the robots’ Gala performance. One Weibo netizen says that her boss bought the CCTV Gala robot, and that all people in the office put their work down to see the robot dance along to ‘Gangnam Style’.

The Alpha 1S can be bought online. On Taobao, the robot is sold for around 3000 RMB (±450 US$)

alpha4whatsonweibo

On a side note: remarkably, the multiple promotion campaigns for the made-in-China robot does not feature Chinese-looking models – making it seem like an American or European product.  

A woman named Sima comments on Weibo: “What interested most about the CCTV Gala were the robots dancing together with the drones on Sun Nan’s song. It was such a novelty – this is China’s future!”

By Manya Koetse

Images via CCTV screenshots by Whatsonweibo.com and Tencent
Gifs via http://www.wanhuajing.com/d84556

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

China Arts & Entertainment

Luo Tianyi and the Booming Virtual Idol Market in China

The virtual entertainment market is exploding in China.

Manya Koetse

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They are featured on China’s biggest TV shows and on the covers of fashion magazines: they’re virtual idols yet their success is very real.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, see Goethe.de: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

At the Spring Festival Gala of 2021, the Chinese state media’s annual televised event that only invites the country’s top-notch performers, the virtual idol Luo Tianyi (洛天依) made a guest appearance.

It was a big media moment that showed the growing importance of virtual superstars in Chinese pop culture. Luo’s performance was even announced on the show’s promo posters, making this the first time ever for a virtual star to be on the show like this.

Virtual celebrities such as Luo Tianyi are also called ‘vsingers’ and often have an enormous fanbase. What is the story behind Luo Tianyi and the boom of virtual superstars in China, leading to the remarkable appearance of a non-human celebrity in the country’s biggest mainstream TV show?

 
Luo Tianyi: The First Chinese Vsinger
 

Although it was the first time for Luo Tianyi to appear at the Spring Festival Gala, it was not her first big performance. The superstar previously showed up as holograph live at big events such as the Bilibili night, and in 2019 she shared a stage with renowned Chinese pianist Lang Lang.

Promotional poster for the Luo Tianyi and Lang Lang concert.

Such a performance does not come easy. It takes months to design the looks and the moves. The holographic appearance of Luo Tianyi and the spectacular two-hour show took around six months of preparation by around 200 professionals involved in the production of Luo Tianyi.

Luo Tianyi is a so-called ‘vocaloid’ singer – a Mandarin Chinese language virtual character that was originally featured in the voice synthesizer software called VOCALOID developed by Yamaha, using third parties to create the characters. Vocaloid is a commercial product (released in 2004) with the purpose of enabling users to get a singer for lyrics and melodies without needing to hire an actual human singer.

The Shanghai Henian company collaborated with Tokyo-based Bplats in developing Luo Tianyi. The character was based on the winner of a contest that was organized in support of creating the first Chinese Vocaloid. The real-life singer whose voice was used for the creation of Tianyi is Chinese singer Shan Xin (山新).

Luo Tianyi was officially launched in 2012 as a 15-year-old entertainer and vsinger. By now, she has around five million followers on her Weibo account (@Vsinger_洛天依) where she posts about her performances, with thousands of people liking and sharing these posts.

 
Virtual Idol Boom: From Japan to China
 

According to Chinese state media outlet Global Times, 2020 was the year that virtual idols really took off in China, going hand in hand with the growing popularity of livestreaming.

Chinese video-sharing site Bilibili has contributed to the growing success of virtual idols in China. Bilibili is a homebase for many fan communities in China, since it is mainly themed around animation, comic, and games (ACG). It is one of the earliest platforms in China to broadcast virtual idol concerts, and in 2020 it held China’s first concert consisting solely of virtual performers under the title ‘BML-VR 2020’ (link).

The Bilibili concert featured a performance by various virtual entertainers, including the popular Hiseki Erio. Hiseki Erio is not Chinese, but Japanese. So is Hatsune Miki, one of the most famous virtual idols ever.

You could say Japan is the birthplace of virtual idols – a history that goes back to 1996 when Kyoko Date, also known as DK-96 or ‘Digital Kid 1996,’ made her debut as the first virtual talent.

Virtual idols come in various shapes, forms, and subgenres, and they all have their different background stories. Hatsune Miki was released in 2007 as the embodiment of the Vocolaid software developed by Crypton Future, and then there are the popular virtual Youtubers, ‘vtubers’, with virtual talent agencies such as Hololive also thriving in Japan.

The term ‘virtual Youtuber’ came with the arrival of Kizuna AI, who posted her first introduction Youtube video in late 2016. Kizuna, who later became a cultural ambassador for the Japan National Tourism Organization, is still considered one of the most popular vtubers on earth.

With the great popularity of Japanese manga and anime on the Chinese market, Japanese virtual idols also gained a strong foothold in the People’s Republic since around 2017. Hatsune Miki alone already has over 3,4 million fans on Weibo (@初音未来CryptonFutureMedia).

Virtual idols are increasingly popular in China, where Chinese virtual stars are springing up (Luo Tianyi, Ling, Xing Tong, Yousa).

The virtual entertainment market is now exploding in China, where the online ACG culture is flourishing on Bilibili and beyond.

Since Japanese popular culture products began to gain popularity in China in the early 1990s, there have been various developments that have shown the government’s dislike of the ‘Japanese cultural invasion’ in the country. As a counter-reaction, there has been stronger promotion of the production of made-in-China animations and other ACG products.

While China is seeing a steady release of domestic animated films and series, there is now also a wave of new China-born virtual stars, such as the Bilibili idol Yousa (冷鸢), or Xing Tong (星瞳), a virtual idol from Tencent. Chinese gaming company Papergames made the virtual character Nuan Nuan (暖暖) to also live outside of the gaming world; she is now a singer, a stylist, and a popular fashion ambassador.

Ling (right) featured on the cover of Vogue Me.

There is also Ling (翎), the Chinese virtual influencer who loves Peking opera, tea culture, and calligraphy. Ling, who was created by Next Generation studio and Shanghai AI startup Xmov, appeared on the CCTV show Bravo Youngsters (上线吧华彩少年) and was featured on the cover of Vogue Me in February 2021 alongside actual real-life celebrities.

Chinese virtual influencer Ling.

The number of Chinese virtual celebrities is expected to grow along with the growing market. In October of 2020, the Chinese variety show Dimension Nova (跨次元新星) first aired as a talent show scouting new virtual talent.

 
Virtual Commercials and Controversies
 

The growing influence of the virtual entertainment economy and culture in China is becoming more and more noticeable in pop music, commercial culture, and even in the sphere of politics.

Virtual celebrities are so popular that brands are also jumping in on this craze by hiring them as brand ambassadors or by creating their own cyber stars. Tencent’s Xing Tong, for example, modeled for Levi’s and sportswear brand Li Ning. Nuan Nuan, among others, was featured in a commercial for hair care brand LUX. Luo Tianyi appeared in campaigns for Huawei, Pizza Hut and KFC.

In January of 2021, McDonald’s China announced their own virtual idol “Happy Sister” (开心姐姐) as a brand ambassador. They are not the only one: there are over thirty companies in China now using a virtual brand ambassador. The new McDonald’s idol was welcomed by Weibo users, where the news of her launch received 200 million views.

McDonald’s China announced their own virtual idol “Happy Sister” (开心姐姐) as a brand ambassador.

The virtual idol influence also became apparent when Japanese ‘Hololive’ virtual celebrities Akai Haato and Kiryu Coco recently got caught up in a diplomatic row because they referred to Taiwan as a “country” when discussing their YouTube channel analytics during a livestream, leading to controversy among their Chinese fanbase.

In a statement published on Bilibili by Cover (the Japanese company behind the Hololive talent agency that the virtual celebrities in question were under), the agency apologized for what had happened. Nevertheless, both virtual stars involved in the controversy were banned from Bilibili and eventually the entire Chinese Hololive branch was shut down.

This example shows that although virtual idols are generally regarded as a safe option for brands and companies because, unlike real celebrities, they are not likely to get caught up in scandals, it is still possible for them to spark controversy.

Nevertheless, the future looks bright for virtual stars in China with still an enormous market for Luo Tianyi and others to conquer, with plenty of room for growth. From concerts to fashion shows to live streaming channels, from Weibo to Bilibili and beyond, we are bound to see virtual stars increasingly become a part of everyday life in China.

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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China Digital

From Red Packet to Virtual Hongbao: Lucky Envelopes in China’s Digital Era

Raising virtual cows, shaking with phones – this is the Chinese New Year tradition of giving red envelopes in the digital era.

Things That Talk

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The custom of giving out red paper envelopes has evolved into a world of virtual lucky money and online games. This is the transformation of a Chinese New Year’s tradition, reported by Koen van der Lijn and Xiaojun Zhang.

 
When objects meet social media, two websites meet as well. This is a collaboration between What’s on Weibo and Things That Talk (follow on Insta @thingsthattalk).
 

Ever wanted to raise a digital cow? This year, you can raise your own lucky cow (福牛) for Chinese New Year on Weibo. Through maintaining and raising their virtual cow (or ox), users can participate in this online game to win red envelopes, a well-known and beloved tradition linked to Chinese New Year.

The hashtag “Lucky Cow’s New Year’s Travelogue” (#福牛新春旅行记#) is linked to Weibo’s celebration of Chinese Spring Festival and the Year of the Ox. Users are expected to be active on Weibo daily to raise their cow/ox, similar to the once so popular Tamagotchi. Whilst leveling up their cow, users get the possibility to earn digital red envelopes.

The online game is another development in the story of the red envelopes, known in China as hongbao (红包). Often given during Chinese New Year, the envelopes can also be given at other joyous occasions like weddings. These red envelopes are given to each other by friends and family members to wish each other a happy new year and are always filled with an amount of money.

Red envelopes for sale via Taobao.

The practice of giving money during Chinese New Year goes far back in Chinese history. The earliest form of the red envelope is said to be yasuiqian (压祟钱). In order to keep evil spirits away, called sui (祟), people put money underneath children’s pillow since the evil spirits were said to be warded off by coins.1 These coins were woven together using a string.

Yasuiqian

As time went by and paper money and envelopes became more widespread, string and coins were replaced and the red envelope was created.

Red envelopes are used by Chinese all over the world nowadays. The amount of money inside depends on many factors. Recently, the tradition has left behind its tangible form and entered the digital era.

 

“Adding the thrill of gambling to the practice of giving away red envelopes”

 

In 2014, the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat (微信) launched a new function that allowed users to send virtual red envelopes. Users could send an amount of money directly to another user, or an amount of red envelopes could be sent into a groupchat. When the function launched, users worldwide could shake their phones in order to receive free red envelopes. The amount of money that was given to users surpassed 500 million yuan ($77.5 million).

WeChat’s inventive idea put digital red envelopes on the map in China. During the peak of the event, 800 million shakes were recorded per minute. There were two types of envelopes introduced in 2014 by Tencent, the company that owns WeChat:

1. A regular red envelope that could be sent directly from one user to another.
2. A ‘group’ red envelope, with a limited number to be grabbed and a limited sum of money which can be grabbed by all users in a group if they are fast enough. The sum inside this envelope is randomized, adding the thrill of gambling to the practice of giving away red envelopes.

Other companies also wanted a piece of the digital red envelope cake: Weibo and AliPay combined their strengths a year after WeChat introduced its digital hongbao in order to promote their version of the digital red envelope.

A ‘war’ then broke out between the two companies. AliPay handed out 600 million renminbi ($93 million) worth of red envelopes as a response to WeChat’s 120 million envelopes sent out during the televised celebration of Chinese New Year.2

 

“Digital red envelopes can cross time and place, but cannot replace the method of face-to-face contact”

 

In the years after, the digital red envelope became more and more popular. Weibo and Alipay also came with their version of sending red envelopes online. The companies organized large-scale actions to make users make use of their form of digital red envelopes.

WeChat, for instance, gives users the option to make the red envelopes very personal through adding stickers and personal messages, making the digital red envelope an even more enjoyable experience.

Does this new development of the traditional red envelope make the tangible envelope obsolete?

When asked by the digital newspaper The Paper (澎湃新闻) about whether the digital red envelope might replace its tangible brother, scholar Tian Zhaoyuan (田兆元) of East China Normal University said that the digital red envelope can cross time and place, but cannot replace the method of face-to-face contact. Though friends and family may send one another digital red envelopes, it does not mean that it replaces the tangible red envelopes.3

The tradition of sending red envelopes is and will be inherently linked to Chinese New Year. Though both the paper and digital forms of the tradition remain incredibly popular, the virtual hongbao will definitely win territory once more this year as travel is restricted due to COVID-19. Especially in these times, the digital red envelope is the best digital way of wishing family and friends a happy new year.

Why are ‘lucky envelopes’ not just red, but sometimes also green or purple? Read more via Things That Talk here.

 
By Koen van der Lijn and Xiaojun Zhang

Koen van der Lijn (China Studies, BA) is a ResMa student Asian Studies at Leiden University focused on Chinese history and its international relations. He is a student ambassador at Things That Talk.

Xiaojun Zhang (China Studies, BA) is an MA student Asian Studies at Leiden University focused on contemporary Chinese culture, symbolism and food. For Things That Talk, she currently works on a project about Chinese-Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands.

This story was made in collaboration with ThingsThatTalk.net – exploring humanities through the life of objects. Things That Talk is an educational digital project where staff and students produce narratives and metadata about objects in Leiden collections and beyond. Check out the story “Hongbao: from paper envelope to digital gift” on Things That Talk here!

 
Footnotes (other sources hyperlinked within the article)

1 Kin Wai Michael Siu. 2001. “Red Packet: a Traditional Object in the Modern World.” Journal of Popular Culture 35 (3), 103.
2 Chen, Liyan. 2015. “Red Envelope War: How Alibaba and Tencent Fight Over Chinese New Year.” Forbes, Feb 19 https://www.forbes.com/sites/liyanchen/2015/02/19/red-envelope-war-how-alibaba-and-tencent-fight-over-chinese-new-year/?sh=1b88bccccddd.
3 The Paper, Zuowei yi zhong “xinnian su”, weixin hongbao hui qudai zhizhi hongbao ma? 作为一种“新年俗”,微信红包会取代纸质红包吗?, https://cul.qq.com/a/20160208/012888.htm.

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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