During a marathon live-stream on popular Chinese video platform Bilibili last month, Hiseki Erio performed for nine hours straight to 90,000 online viewers, of whom more than 3,000 were premium subscribers to her channel. The number of paying followers she has rose to 8,000 after the performance in October. It is hard to decide which is more impressive: her stamina and ability to chat and sing non-stop for such a long time; the fact some 27,000 viewers showered her with digital gifts (that can be converted into real currency) during her show; or that at least some of her 448,000 fans are willing to pay 200 yuan (US$30) a month to her channel for premium membership. What makes the Japanese-speaking Erio stand out from other stars is that she is also a virtual idol. Unlike Vocaloids (digital avatars manipulated and run by computer programs), virtual idols are something of a digital-analogue hybrid: avatars in the form of an animation or hologram but with a real human voice, and with movements and facial expressions based on those of a real person. Virtual idols first appeared in Japan in the 1990s. They have, in recent years, caught the imagination of the Chinese population . Because of that growing popularity, Bilibili plans to stage a virtual-idol-only concert at the National Exhibition and Convention Centre in Shanghai on December 19. Billed as the first of its kind, the event will feature 16 Chinese and 14 Japanese virtual entertainers – including Erio. Fan Yibai, virtual idol chief manager at the video sharing platform, says Erio’s popularity is down to her beautiful singing voice and authentic personality. “She is open about her life and its many challenges. Fans can relate to her. For example, she shared how she took care of her sick grandmother during Covid-19,” he explains. “When she first started [on Bilibili], her live streams didn’t get much attention. However … even when she had very few viewers, she always tried her best to interact with [her fans]. She cried a couple of times out of gratitude for them during her nine-hour live stream. “We are so impressed with her potential that we decided to promote her and direct even more viewers to her channel.” According to a 2019 report on virtual idols released by Chinese streaming giant iQiyi, 64 per cent of people aged 14 to 24 are followers of virtual idols. On Bilibili, from January to October there was a 225 per cent year-on-year increase in the monthly average viewing time of virtual-idol live streams. Fan says that Bilibili has now created several dozen original digital avatars. “They have different specialities,” he says. “Some of them are talented in singing. Some used to be professional gamers, while others specialise in chitchatting with viewers. There are real people behind the virtual idols who provide their voice, and movements and facial expressions using motion capture technology.” Fan says the key to virtual idols’ popularity is their commitment to their fans “who look for someone who genuinely cares about them and is willing to interact with them”. Bilibili is using localisation to help overseas virtual idols become popular with the youth market in China. Japan’s Otome Oto first appeared on YouTube in 2019. She is fluent in Chinese and live-streams on Bilibili singing love ballads by legendary Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng, such as The Moon Represents My Heart . This has led fans to nickname her the virtual Teresa Teng. Virtual idols can be huge money-spinners for fashion, cosmetics and video games manufacturers whose main clientele are young people. The first Chinese Vocaloid model, Luo Tianyi , made by Shanghai-based music production software company Vsinger, is the virtual spokeswoman for brands such as KFC, Nestlé and L’Occitane. A live-stream show held in May on Taobao , an e-commerce platform owned by Alibaba, featured Luo and other virtual stars. At its peak viewership there were 2.7 million viewers, with two million people giving cash as tips for the idols. (Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post .) In October, iQiyi launched Dimension Nova , a reality television show that pits 30 digital anime avatars against each other in front of three human celebrity judges. Bilibili has, since 2013, organised in-person concerts that feature both virtual and human personalities. Fan says they are among the largest offline anime, comic and games-themed events in China. “Fans gather to enjoy performances of animation soundtracks and interact with youth and online culture personalities. “We have held 10 such events since 2013, attracting over 240,000 people in total. While they are live-streamed for free, ticket prices for the concerts cost from 260 to 1,280 yuan, comparable to those commanded by Asia’s A-list pop stars.” Last year, 8,000 people attended such a concert, which lasted six hours and was held in the Mercedes-Benz Arena Shanghai. All the tickets were snapped up within two hours of going on sale, two months before the concert.