SAN DIEGO — Tucked away against the wall furthest from the entrance of the San Diego Convention Center, the fuchsia-drenched VShojo booth appeared to be that of a standard merchandise vendor. A line of eager fans snaked around the booth, with some in the queue craning their necks for a glimpse of the Vtuber Projekt Melody.
When fans met Melody, however, she appeared on a lifesize screen rigged with a microphone and a camera. The camera tilted up and down and autofocused to keep whoever was interacting with her in the frame. When she autographed posters, she used a tablet synced to a robotic arm that moved with her pen strokes.
Melody, 22, an adult content creator, is one the most prominent American Vtubers. Like many others in the burgeoning field, she uses a 2D or 3D animated model in all of her content rather than record her “real” face. Her voice is her own, and to her 591,000 Twitch followers, it is as recognizable as her avatar’s purple hair.
Vtubing — a portmanteau of “virtual YouTuber” — began in Japan in the mid-2010s, and in the lockdowns at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, it took off in English-speaking spaces online, according to The Washington Post, which reported about the phenomenon in April.
Although Vtubers aren’t particularly new, bringing creators to the physical realm is still in its nascent stages. Several VShojo members appeared in July at Anime Expo in Los Angeles, where their faces were streamed on iPads and carried around at the event.
Former Twitch employee Justin “TheGunRun” Ignacio launched the talent agency VShojo, which exclusively reps Vtubers, in 2020. Melody, who had gained a following by streaming with her avatar on Chaturbate earlier that year, was one of VShojo’s founding clients.
“Oh, my God, all these people that I speak to all the time online and people that have supported me from the very beginning, they’re here right now in front of me,” Melody, who doesn’t disclose her real name in public to maintain her privacy, said in an interview. “I can see the way they smile. I can see the way they saw it. I can see if they’re nervous or how excited they are. ... It’s just really surreal.”
For TwitchCon, VShojo wanted to make its meet and greet feel more interactive while maintaining the fantasy of each Vtuber’s character, said the agency’s business development manager, Tommy Stang. He added that he wanted the experience to also be accessible for creators who couldn't physically attend.
Just getting the chance to talk with their favorite creators was enough for many fans.
Alexis Mai, 31, arrived early Sunday to meet the streamer known as Ironmouse, another VShojo member, whose meet and greet was scheduled a few hours before Melody's.
“Even though we’re not meeting up with these Vtubers face to face, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re so entertaining and inspirational,” Mai said. “Being able to interact with them in any shape, there’s magic to it.”
The experience was also exciting for Melody.
“The magic is absolutely there, because finally, it’s tangible,” Melody said. “With this, it’s something you can see in action.”
Bringing Vtubers into the real world
Melody, who describes her character as a “sentient AI,” declined to disclose where she physically was during the meet and greet. She said she did attend the convention in person. (Or, as she put it, in her “hologram” form.)
Ahead of her time slot, Melody said she was nervous — she sat “sweating” in a “little booth” with her manager.
“When I’m streaming to thousands of people, it’s just me alone in a room talking as I feel comfortable and also responding to chat,” she said. “And I don’t even necessarily have to respond to chat. I can just be doing my own thing, but it’s a bit more one-sided. There’s no faces, so I’m not put in such a high-pressure situation.”
Vtubers have made appearances at physical meet and greets throughout this year, with varying degrees of interactivity with fans. Some simply appeared on screens — the Japanese agency Hololive had talent meet fans in August at Crunchyroll Expo in San Jose, California, through a TV screen.
Others have taken it further. The Japanese ASMR Vtuber Nightmare hosted a “handshake event” in July. The avatar appeared on a screen mounted above two human hands emerging through holes in a sheet, so fans could “talk” to Nightmare while shaking “her” hand.
The autograph signing at the VShojo booth was inspired by the handshake event. Melody originally wanted to appear on a “Terminator-style robot” that could “give the most intense hugs,” but her idea was shot down because it was technologically impossible to accomplish in time for TwitchCon and deemed a liability. The company also toyed with the idea of an arm-wrestling event, which also was too “dangerous,” Melody added, in case the robotic arm “becomes sentient and crushes a fan.”
Signing posters as a robot, she said, “felt very traditional but also futuristic.” The autograph rig debuted Sunday, the last day of the convention.
Nymo, a fan of Melody’s who wanted to be referred to using only his handle out of concern for his privacy, previously met the creator at another convention’s meet and greet. He applauded VShojo’s booth, where he said he felt more like he was talking to someone in a physical space than a “disembodied head on a screen.”
“I also got to see VShojo do live remote autographs, and I think that’s a really cool way to bridge the gap for virtual streamers to meet with fans,” Nymo said. “Meet and greets like these are a great opportunity for virtual creators to meet their fans in a way that VR or a chat box can’t deliver, so I hope to see more Vtubers at conventions like this soon enough.”
VShojo talent were able to call in from anywhere, and the low-latency system the company used ensured that there was almost no delay between the fans and creators. The face-to-face interactions, which performed like video calls, were virtually seamless. The brand-new autograph function, Melody admitted, hit a few snags.
“On a few people’s posters, I wrote my name three times, and on one of them, I tried to make a smiley face,” she said, laughing. “That was cute, but then I’m like, no, it should be a bunny. No, it should be a frog. And I didn’t know that for every little edit — when I refreshed it, I thought I erased it — it included it. So some of them absolutely had penises on them.”
'Avoiding celebrity treatment' at TwitchCon
The meet and greets allowed VShojo creators who were unable to travel or leave home for the event to participate in TwitchCon without risking their health.
The streamer Ironmouse, for example, has been open about her experience with common variable immunodeficiency, an antibody disorder that makes patients extremely vulnerable to infections. Although she didn’t attend the event in person, she was honored during TwitchCon’s opening ceremony for having become the most-subscribed female streamer ever this year.
Madison Haynes, 19, was also in line for Ironmouse’s meet and greet Sunday. She dismissed the notion that Vtubers are less worthy of acknowledgment just because they obscure their faces.
“I think it’s kind of disrespectful to think that people who don’t want to show their face and create a persona can’t be enjoyed by everyone,” she said. “I don’t think that you have to put everything publicly to be awesome online and inspire and entertain people.”
Because her physical face is obscured when she makes public appearances, Melody said, she was able to navigate the convention center without being swarmed by fans, as many other popular streamers were. Avoiding the “celebrity treatment” was a relief, she said, both at TwitchCon and in her personal life.
“Everyone wants to be a celebrity, but the issue with being popular, though, is you can’t go to the grocery store,” she said. “And when you are anonymous and you’ve never had, like, a human face, there’s this degree of separation that you feel safer. Because some people aren’t just really cool, nice fans. Some people can really push beyond those limits.”
"And when you are anonymous and you’ve never had like, a human face, there’s this degree of separation that you feel safer."
vtuber projekt melody
Many of Melody’s fans prefer to maintain her privacy, as well. While some faceless creators, like the formerly faceless streamer Dream, have dealt with fans obsessed with finding out what they really look like, Melody said hers are respectful of the persona she has curated online.
Stuart Harris, 34, found the meet and greet with Melody “so innovative and so neat.” He said he didn’t care to find out where she really was or what she really looked like.
“People have varying comforts of how to deal with large groups of people, and it’s understandable. Some people have anxiety or stuff like that,” he said after he got his poster signed. “You’re not there with them in person, but you still get to meet them. It’s really cool to talk to them. And they’re just normal people trying to do what they love to do.”
Melody, in her “hologram” form, even met other Vtubers at their meet and greets. She stopped by the marketplace known as Artist Alley to chat with the creator known as Techy, who had her own booth, and attended the meet and greet for her fellow VShojo member Silvervale.
She was especially curious to see what her fans saw when they interacted with the avatars on screen. Both Vtubers were able to identify her as Projekt Melody because they recognized her voice, Melody said. Even though she had spent hours on the other end, it was still thrilling.
“I saw her standing there, I saw her moving, and I saw her swaying. I heard her laugh, and it went through this extra microphone so that it would project more, and there was a bit of an echo,” Melody said of meeting Silvervale. “And I heard her laugh, and it filled up that portion of the room that I was standing in, and I was like: ‘This is so cool. She’s here right now, and I’m here right now, and we are here together.’ There’s just chills and tingles seeing her there and hearing her.”