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CG idols mean no human is required

By Martyn Williams

(IDG) -- Meet Yuki Terai, a 17-year old girl from just outside of Tokyo who enjoys eating strawberries, listening to jazz music and taking photographs. At 166 centimeters tall, and with a refusal to divulge her weight, she's every bit the typical Japanese teenager except in one respect -- she doesn't exist.

Terai is the invention of computer animator Kenichi Kutsugi and is one of the better known of a growing group of "CG idols" in Japan -- computer generated characters that are made so lifelike, they work just like other celebrities. Terai, for example, has released several CDs, an album of her greatest hits, several videos and DVDs and a photo collection and can be hired for other work. INFOCENTER
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But to date her most notable achievement came as she burst upon the scene in a TV commercial for toothpaste. When it hit the air she not only raised the profile of the product but expanded the popularity of CG idols beyond the world of Internet-using, hormone-charged guys with too much time on their hands, to a new audience of TV-watching, hormone-charged guys with too much time on their hands.

Before Terai the most well known CG idol was Kyoko Date, a character developed in 1996 by major talent agency Horipro Inc. The company pushed her to release a single -- an easy task considering she can't say no and is capable of working 24-hour days -- and a late-night radio show soon followed, but her popularity never spread beyond the Internet.

It wasn't until Terai came along that CG idols began approaching mainstream acceptance and, since her, only one other character has managed to make an impact on Japanese audiences. Fei Fei, a creation of artist Takatoshi Oki, lives in a futuristic world and has proved popular enough to support a photo book and posters.

But forget the real world -- on the Internet things really come alive. There are hundreds of Web sites devoted to cyber idols created by fans of graphics art from around the world. Many simply scour the Internet looking for pictures of their favorite characters to post on personal fan sites but some are now taking things a little further. With the price of high-powered computer gear and software dropping, a new breed of would-be artists are publishing their own work and some are gaining large cult followings.

Beyond the static world of two-dimensional photographs, characters have jumped into computer games such as Primal Image. Developed by Atlus Co. Ltd., the game allows users to manipulate female (of course) CG models in a variety of poses and have photographs taken of them. Users can choose the setting, clothes, props and several other aspects of the game and even hear the models talk back when they are asked to perform poses a little too difficult for even a computer-generated character.

Of course, the end result for some people of all of this cyber-lusting is love, and some companies positively encourage such feelings. From simple e-mail boxes on sites, interaction with characters took on a life of its own earlier this year when Sammy Corp. launched "Mail de Girl" on NTT DoCoMo Inc.'s popular I-mode wireless Internet service. For 230 yen a month (US$2), users can send e-mail to a cyber girl and get a reply, automatically generated by an artificial intelligence engine.

So is a wave of CG idols the next pop-culture export from Japan?

Not likely. Computer entertainment company Square Co. Ltd. lost a packet on a movie modeled on its highly successful Final Fantasy video game franchise. The movie was one of the first mainstream fully animated features outside of the cartoon genre and the graphics were hailed for their reality but audiences did not take kindly to it. Square was left with its movie-making dreams in tatters and a 13.9 billion yen (US$113.0 million) debt.


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