NCSoft’s new K-pop platform Universe (Universe)
On a boring afternoon of yet another day working from home, a smartphone comes to life with a delightful ringtone. It’s a call from Ahn Yujin, the lead vocal of South Korean female K-pop band IZ*ONE.
In her trademark husky voice, she calls you by name, saying “How’s it going? I know you’re busy, but take some rest from time to time, okay?”
The 25-second-long phone call is a moment of solace, at a time when almost all direct human contact has been replaced with dry, impersonal KakaoTalk messages.
Of course, the phone call did not come from the actual Ahn Yujin herself. It’s a phone call that uses a generated “reconstruction” of her voice with NCSoft’s cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology.
NCSoft’s Universe, a K-pop platform released in 134 countries on Jan. 28, has not only reinvented the use of AI voice technology, but sets a new paradigm for social network services.
Just like Netflix, the all-in-one platform offers paid subscription membership that gives users access to exclusive content such as music videos, entertainment shows K-pop groups appear on and celebrity photos. The platform also works like Instagram, where artists can communicate with their fans by uploading text, pictures and videos.
What sets Universe apart from other platforms is that it reads the text for subscribers in the voices of artists replicated by NCSoft’s AI voice technology, giving fans the feel of personally interacting with their favorite artists.
But what is arguably the platform’s most noticeable feature would be its “private call” function, which allows fans to have phone conversations with their favorite idols in AI form.
A screenshot image of a “private call” with IZ*ONE’s lead vocal Ahn Yujin (Universe)
Over 4 million K-pop fans have preregistered for the app since last November, with high hopes of speaking with K-pop artists on the phone, including the likes of IZ*ONE, Kang Daniel, Monsta X, AB6IX, (G)I-dle, Cosmic Girls, CIX, The Boyz and Astro.
However, expectations might have been too high.
Good, but not good enough
In a nutshell, Universe’s AI voice technology is impressive, but incomplete.
As of Feb. 4, more than 5,100 users have left reviews on the Google Play Store and gave the app an average rating of 2.3 out of 5. Most of them were criticisms saying the artists’ AI voices sounded mechanical, even “creepy.”
Putting aside the less than warm reception from fans, Universe’s AI voice technology does exhibit critical issues, such as struggling to digest lengthy sentences.
In the 25-second call with Ahn, the AI system was able to mimic the female artist’s voice naturally in a simple sentence such as “How’s it going?” But for longer sentences such as, “When we are together, time goes so fast,” the AI system failed to pause at the right junctures. Simply put, the AI system spoke like a human as if they did not need to breathe.
Seemingly aware of this shortcoming, the app has limited duration of calls to around 30 seconds.
Most importantly, fans have pointed out that naming it a “private call” function is misleading. Instead of interactive, back-and-forth conversations between the caller and receiver, Universe’s call doesn’t support two-way conversations. During the call, the AI system spits out few sentences and hangs up, more like reading out a voice message.
Though NCSoft has previously said it aims to develop a linguistic AI modeled after Samantha, a powerful AI software voiced by actress Scarlett Johansson in the movie “Her,” Universe’s AI system is far from its role model as of yet.
Universe also enables users to purchase outfits and dress the 3D avatars of their favorite artists, but its lackluster graphics so far has only disappointed fans.
Comparisons of Universe avatars and the actual photos of IZ*ONE artists (Universe)
When heavyweight politicians visited NCSoft’s headquarters in October, chief executive Kim Taek-jin said his goal was to “create a digital actor that can make facial expressions like humans and act naturally.”
However, Universe’s avatar content seems to have a long way to go before it reaches the CEO’s standards. Fans complain the avatars look almost identical, making it impossible even for hardcore followers to recognize who is who. The only difference between the avatars are the size of their eyes and hair styles.
Some even go as far to say that the graphics are “catastrophic.” The avatars trigger a tremendous visual displeasure not because they are too realistic, but because they look like the work of amateurs, fans said.
Of course, a mobile app has limits, as too detailed graphics can slow down the app and undermine its fluid operation.
However, considering that NCSoft has a reputation to uphold as one of Korea’s top three game firms, they need to provide a proper explanation for their clumsy graphics to disappointed users.
NCSoft didn’t reveal which game engine it used for making the avatars.
By Kim Byung-wook (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Time to Play is a review of new game releases. Kim Byung-wook is a staff reporter at The Korea Herald and a hardcore Fifa Online 4 user with 456 friendly match wins. He has also played StarCraft 2 Zerg and has once ranked diamond. He is currently a captain in the first-person shooter game Sudden Attack and the owner of a level 184 Soul Master in role-playing game MapleStory. Kim still plays Football Manager 2017. -- Ed.