This interview was conducted at Otakon 2022 in Washington DC. Gugenka, Inc. is a company that describes itself as “Sales of digital goods and technical research on Japanese animation using advanced contents such as VR/AR/MR.” Mikami Masafumi is the CEO, and Kiral Poon is the CTO.
How did you get into the business of 3D, VR, AR—these sorts of subjects?
Poon: Do you mean academic side, or…?
Anything, really. If there’s an academic element, then definitely talk about it. If it’s sort of an amateur hobby, or…just what inspired you to take this up…
Mikami: We were originally making AR stuff for movie promotions, and we slowly moved that content into VR. That became for VR anime promotion, where we promote anime with our VR abilities.
Poon: One of the examples would be the Sailor Moon VR that we built. That is also, like, a movie for Sailor Moon Crystal promotion, and then we did the VR game for the event. And in the end now it’s on VIVEPORT for free, but it was originally promotional content.
I first became familiar with Gugenka through the HoloModels app.
Yeah. I found out about it from a reader, actually.
Poon: When did you hear about it?
A couple of years ago, I think?
So what was the origin of the decision to make virtual AR models? Was the plan from the start to work with established properties?
Mikami: The way it started off was, you know how we have anime figures in real life, right? What if we could make digital versions of anime figures?
In physical figures, it’s probably not a real surprise to see on your figure rack a Dragon Ball character and a Re:ZERO characters side by side. But then in VR contents, it was an uphill battle to get the understanding to have two characters of different IPs sitting on the same app.
Poon: I’d like to actually convey my two cents on that. Japanese companies are really, really, really restrictive on the IP stuff. The more I work with them, the more I think that’s so crazy about it. Masafumi back in the day, he tried very hard. One problem is, how can you line up two different IPs together without any problem with the IP company. Cause they usually want to have their own world, right? When it’s in the real world, it’s just figures, so they don’t care about it. But in digital, they usually have control with their applications. So Masafumi was actually the producer. He is the one who actually produced it and persuaded those companies to do it together. The reason he can do that is because this company has a long history with these companies and these movies. He already knew these people, and that’s why he did it. It is not easy at all, in my opinion.
I’ve heard similar things about the game Super Smash Bros. When it comes to the director, Sakurai, it’s only because he has such a strong reputation in his industry that he’s able to convince all these different…
Poon: Yeah, exactly. In Japan, when you work, it’s not only about ability, but also about how people trust you. So that’s the case.
I also want to point out why this app exists, which is that there’s limited space around the world. We usually line up a lot of figures—I buy my own figures too—they take up a lot of space. In AR applications, you stick them into the space, and you can display them anytime. It’s just like an RPG item box, where you just bring it up anytime—exactly like that. That’s really convenient, and you can do more than with actual figures. You can move the pose and change the face. With real figures, you have to change the parts, and there’ll be lines on the face you don’t want. But with digital figures, you don’t have that problem. So that’s one of the main reason I can tell you why we created them.
You actually anticipated my next question!
So moving on, Gugenka has collaborated with virtual stars of all kinds. You have Vocaloids like Hatsune Miku. You have Virtual Youtubers like Kizuna A.I., Tokino Sora—and I remember that when I got the Gugenka HoloModels app, there was Shinonome Megu.
Poon: You did a good job. People don’t even know that one.
So what do you think about the fact that people are embracing virtual characters, and have you noticed any changes in the degree to which people are embracing them?
Mikami: Right now, everyone has their own different characteristics, and everyone would probably be able to express themselves differently in different bodies. I believe that our app would enable everyone to express themselves in their own body of their choice.
Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the concept of virtual spaces to the forefront, as friends, families, and businesses try to gather online through various chat programs but also in creating virtual space. How has the pandemic affected your approach to virtual spaces? Has it cast a new light on them?
Poon: So with virtual space, during the pandemic, we have actually been trying to increase our opportunities with all these restrictive companies. In my point of view, usually Japanese companies tend not to do remote work and exhibitions lots online. But because of the pandemic, they start thinking about it, and they approach us. Of course, sometimes we approach those companies—“Hey, do you want to do it?” Usually, it’s the case that they will ask us about doing online exhibitions. Before, there were, like, no exhibitions, but because of the pandemic, we have those events hosted by Gugenka.
For example, the closest one would be the MF Bunko J one that we just did with Kadokawa—the light novel one. It’s a really popular real-world event in Japan. And there’s live concerts, like the Sanrio Virtual Fes. We tried to make it realistic, and we have a very good reputation on that event with VRChat. And of course, we also connect with all these partners from Japan—VRCast and other platforms. And I connect with all others across the world and have partnerships with them, like VRChat. After that, people started realizing what we’re trying to do to make people closer in distance, and display things in HoloModels, and also create your character through MakeAvatar.
You’ve worked on many events, and I know it’s hard to pick a favorite, I guess, but I’ll ask anyway: Do have any events you’re surprised that you managed to work on?
Poon: I guess I’ll let Masafumi answer first, and then I’ll answer.
Makami: I would say Kitty-chan’s Sanrio Virtual Fes is probably my favorite. I can take pride that I participated in it. The reason is that the people who are enjoying the real stuff Sanrio produces, as well as the artists and VTubers—they all come together in one event, so I thought it was a good event.
Poon: I’ll add two cents about the Sanrio virtual event because there’s not many people who know about the event in the US. After I did the panel, people were all surprised. This is a real diverse event that includes actual artists like AKB48—famous, real artists like HoneyWorks. There were also virtual artists like Kizuna A.I. and other VTuber characters. And then there’s also the system that we created so that we can bring this all in, and with synchronization with the timing we can make it feel like a live event.
What that means is, what if you join late but your friends have been in for five minutes? In a usual game, well, you start from zero, and you play it, right? But in real life, you’ll be seeing things five minutes late. What you’re seeing with friends is the same thing, and when you wave, and when you sing, you’re doing the same thing. This is what makes a huge difference with the Sanrio Virtual Fes event. We created a synchronization system to make sure everyone had the same experience, same timing to all these artists. And it’s a huge event because there’s more than a hundred songs. I didn’t sleep for two to three days just to check the songs, and it was crazy. I wish one day we could join us for the second one. So that’s the Sanrio Virtual Fes.
That actually makes me think: Sometimes, due to the pandemic and the increasing use of online spaces, people want to get together for a karaoke session, right? But due to the differences in synchronization, it can cause problems for people who want to sing together. Is there a possibility of creating a space like that for regular users?
Poon: So there’s a lot of problems in terms of people’s preferences. During the event, there’s a separate instance we created to adapt for each person. For example, if your computer is weak, but you still want to enjoy the event, there’s something called shitei [appointed] instance, which means you are pointed to that instance, and we make sure you can have the best experience in that instance. But because it’s a social VR, if you want to see the group, there’s something called jiyuu [free] instance. But if it crashes, or you just want to enjoy the experience with your weak computer, you can still go to the appointed instance.
But also, furthermore, for the paid content, there’s outfits using the MakeAvatar app. It’s like when you dress up as Mickey—or Marvel characters because Disney owns Marvel—and you go to Disneyland. So it’s the same thing as when you go to Sanrio Puroland; you dress as Mochipoly, as they call it. It’s really cute, and you can buy the hat from Kitty, or Keroppi.
There are two reasons for that. First, is because of the story. It’s best delivered that way. It feels like part of them, and it’s real good. When you look at pictures, it’s really nice. Second, is the performance. We want weak computers to also get in easily. So we think about all that and plan the event that way.
I know a lot of people around my age became anime fans in part or in whole due to Slayers.
So I was pleasantly surprised to see both a HoloModel of Lina Inverse—I saw the author, Kanzaki, constantly promoting it—
Poon: Man, I’m surprised you know Slayers, and that we did that?
And you created the Slayers 3D Live event. Were there any fun, creative challenges involved with working with this property?
Poon: Actually, Masafumi was talking about Sanrio, but my favorite event was Slayers. The reason for that is the equal system that I was trying to build. I’m actually the director of the concert for the live event in Tokorozawa Sakura Town.
So we actually have the live event, and then the sequences. We have HoloModels of Slayers, and usually it would be a waste that you can’t use them on other games. It’s really expensive to build a really high-quality CG model. We have the models, we have the live event in Sakura Town in real life, so it feels like Lina Inverse is there, and she does the song. Then, we host this event online in NeoChat so everyone can join. And then in the end, it’s sold on blu-ray. So this whole flow is the equal system that we try to tell those IP companies that we can balance promotion and also maybe earning a little money for the company. That’s why it was my favorite event, because all the systems of the Sanrio event are based on the Slayers event.
I’m surprised. Even though I didn’t do a lot of promotion for it, I’m surprised that you and—actually, one more person at the panel, he said he knew it, and he actually joined the event. I’m actually touched because I want North America—like myself from Canada, and there’s also the US—I want them to join us. But there’s limited resources, and there’s a problem that we didn’t have enough English translation at the time. So in the future, I’m trying to push everyone to do more English support. Good question. I want to talk more about Slayers!
Kiral, one of your interests, as written in the Otakon guidebook, is creating technology to help make life easier for animators. There’s an ongoing issue about animators being overworked and underpaid? Do you think your work can help deal with this issue?
Poon: Do you know Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero? That is one of the good examples of using good 3DCG in movies that doesn’t feel weird. Because sometimes it feels weird in 3DCG. There’s one good example, that you can have an efficient way of moving, and then you can have more stories to deliver to people.
So that is great, and it’s efficient, but to your question, can it solve the overtime and overwork problem? In some ways, but it comes down to the culture in Japan. Let’s say you need less people for the same project, right? Well, you just hire less people for the same work—there’s a chance like that. But it depends on the company. They could be, like, “Oh, there’s less work now, so now everyone doesn’t have to be doing overtime, and they can go home, right? So there’s two approaches, and it comes down to culture, I think, partially. But the reason I want to focus on technology and I keep improving that, like with Slayers, is to try io make it more toon-like with cel shaders—to make it more efficient. But can that solve the core problem is the question.
Are there any Gugenka products or services that get less attention that you think people should know more about?
Mikami: In regards to what I want people to know more about, it’s basically everything: HoloModels, MakeAvatar, virtual events. But I kind of believe there are two major points that I think we need to focus on to have a wider number of people know about us and these events.
One is that there is a time difference between Japan and the US. While we were able to get past the problem of distance because we could bring people together from vastly different parts of the world, we can’t really get past the problem of time at the moment. So, I believe what we want to do in the future is maybe have different events for different time zones to address the time issue.
The other thing I want to focus on is basically localization of the English versions for these apps that we have. We need to be able to disseminate this information about the apps and events, and it’s not as easy as Google or word-for-word translation because sometimes they miss the mark or have different words we would like to use. Also, the thing about media is basically that over here in the US, it’s not like we have a strong understanding of where the media pipelines are. So I believe what would be best is if we could get to know the media people here, and how to best communicate with our fans so that we could disseminate the information to everyone interested in an effective manner.
Poon: I actually have the same feeling. When we do the panels, people actually come to me and say, “I didn’t know Gugenka before—MakeAvatar, HoloModels—but now I’m going be a core fan and support it.” So I’m touched, and also really happy that people enjoy our service.
Like, with MakeAvatar—I don’t think you even know this much yet—but this allows us to use different parameters. The tech part is really hard—I tried so hard on this tech from January—and finally, you can use different kinds of morphs to different kinds of faces. The idea is, usually anime characters are a little bit more the shounen young type, but I want elderly people to also be cool. Even if you’re old, you should be really handsome because you do your own thing. You could be chubby, you could be muscular—allowing the diversity is human, and it should be possible in your own character. That’s why we have all these features.
Of course, we have the SD character, that is, the small one. The main reason we built this one is because we support Quest, cell phone, and browser, so we want the workload to be lower. But we have new, high-quality MakeAvatar that allows you to change clothing and stuff. And the business model would be to buy the cosplay—the costume—and the IP company gets paid, and the user is happy. So you can export to VRChat, VirtualCast, to see online on Vroid Hub, or browser games.
We think in the future maybe we can do more promotion in the US and more people could take advantage of this. You could become a VTuber easily. I could host a panel and just teach you to use the app, and you could be a VTuber for free. And we have the face-tracking support in this, which means it can detect your muscles and move. In normal characters, it only supports simple expressions like A-I-U-E-O and smlle, angry, crying—that’s it. But we support really detailed motions on this.