Rising with the metaverse, virtual human market size in China may reach $42.4 billion by 2030
Market size in China expected to reach $42.4 billion by 2030
Published: Jan 10, 2022 07:10 PM
Photo: VCG

Photo: VCG

China Media Group has recently unveiled an artificial intelligent (AI) sign language virtual anchor, which will be used throughout the upcoming Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games to assist with the broadcast of events in sign language. Well-known singer Teresa Teng, who passed away in 1995, was part of a virtual human performance at the recent New Year gala show presented on Jiangsu Television.

These are the latest examples of virtual humans, which have been trending on social media recently, together with the buzz surrounding the metaverse. And high-tech companies are investing.

In fact, 2021 was considered year one of the metaverse. Virtual humans, which serve as a human-computer interface against the backdrop of metaverse, have become popular again, industry insiders have claimed, adding that the development of 5G, AI and VR technologies have fueled the virtual industry.

Financial returns for virtual idols are mainly generated from livestreaming platform membership fees, live broadcast rewards, brand endorsements, and appearance fees. 

According to a UBS report, the average upfront cost of advanced virtual characters is 30 million yuan ($4.7 million). For instance, it currently costs around 2 million yuan to produce a single sung by virtual girl band A-Soul, and an eye-watering 20 million yuan to host an offline concert.

A survey showed that only 6.3 percent of people are willing to spend more than 500 yuan on virtual idols, still relatively low. With more than 8 million followers, Liu Yexi, a virtual idol, has yet to make a profit and is still in a position to spend money to attract traffic.

Broad market

But investors and industry insiders remain optimistic about the future outlook for virtual humans.

"In the past two years, the epidemic has made space for human activities limited. After a long time of activities within the limited scope, it is inevitable that people will yearn for the virtual world, and the charm of virtual people lies in the rich possibilities for future application," an employee surnamed Zhang from a Beijing-based AI company specializing in creating virtual humans, told the Global Times on Monday.

By 2030, the total market size of China's virtual human is forecast to reach 270 billion yuan ($42.4 billion), according to an industry report published by QbitAI on December 23, 2021.

The market size of character-based virtual human will be about 175 billion yuan and that of service-oriented virtual humans to exceed 95 billion by 2030. The current market is still in the early stage of cultivation, read the report.

Zhang also said that virtual humans have a wide range of application settings, not only restricted to entertainment, but also in education, broadcasting, among a range of  other fields.

"Can you imagine how inspired a kid would be if it was Elsa from Frozen teaching them English? Virtual humans could have a big future in the education sector," Zhang said.

Zhang also mentioned the wide application of virtual human in service industry. "Unlike pure voice and machine, virtual human services are close to real human."

In 2021, virtual humans gained significant attention and broke the "circle." 

Related technologies, such as virtual live broadcasting, virtual spokespeople, AI, have been developed by leveraging underlying technology, and the production cost and threshold have been greatly reduced, a Beijing-based investor surnamed Jia, who has been involved in the high-tech sector for years, told the Global Times on Monday.

"On the demand side, with the growth of generation Z, there is current an audience of between 200-300 million for the pan-two-dimensional space in China," said Jia.

Enterprises have seen the benefit created by virtual humans. Many idols, or public figures were mired in domestic scandals in 2021, leading enterprises to assess the risk of engaging a real human idol, industry insiders claimed.

A subsidiary of ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, on Thursday sponsored Hangzhou Liweike Technology Co, which unveiled its flagship AI virtual digital character Li Weike with real emotional connection in October, 2021.

Start-up stage

"The level of virtual human development in China is about the same as abroad. Although Japan, Europe and the US started earlier, China has been catching up in recent years. There are good signs in the industry, which is moving from quantitative change to qualitative change," said Jia.

China has released policies to encourage innovation and development of virtual human in October 2021, explicitly supporting the development of virtual characters for the first time.

China will promote the wide application of virtual anchors and animated sign language in the production of news broadcasts, weather forecasts, variety shows, science and education programs, according to the blueprint published by the National Radio and Television Administration. 

As early as the 1970s, research into virtual human began in academia. Virtual humans, or computer-synthesized characters, referred to the representation of geometric and behavioral characteristics of human in computer generated space or virtual environment.

Generally speaking, the virtual human industry is still in its start-up stage, and there is still a lot of room for development, including the business model, which has not been completely determined, according to Jia.

"In the future, it's possible that everyone will have their own avatar, the equivalent of today's personal social media account. There will be personal information protection issues," Jia warned.

Strengthening the measured use of facial data and AI technology is necessary for the development of the industry, insiders said, referring to the big data and personal information protection regulations in China.

Virtual humans have gradually developed into a frontier interdisciplinary field involving computer graphics, kinematics and dynamics, multifunctional perception, AI and virtual reality.